Friday, 17 July 2015

Testimony

One of the most important of the original Quaker insights was that our testimony is what we do. It is not what we say we believe, or what we claim to value that matters, but what we say with our life.

Our testimony is all of our actions; a whole way of life that testifies to who we are and to our experience of God. If we encounter spiritual reality and are transformed by it, we will lead a transformed life, and that is our testimony.

The specific actions of Quaker testimony have always been very various, and have also changed over time in response to different situations. For the first Quakers, the most important aspects of their testimony were plain and truthful speech and the refusal to support the established church. Later, our testimony developed in many directions, including opposition to war, anti-slavery, support for refugees and practising equal marriage.

It was only in the 1960s that all of these very diverse kinds of Quaker testimony were first grouped into the familiar list of 'Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace', simply as a convenient way of remembering and explaining them.

Unfortunately, since then we have got into the habit of talking about 'Quaker testimonies' as though they were a list of principles or values that we are supposed to accept and then try (and inevitably fail) to 'live up to'. This makes them into ideas in our heads, that we have to work out how to apply to real life, from the head down. This way of understanding testimonies as a list of values contradicts what is most essential about the Quaker way; that it is a way of practice, rooted in experience, not in principles or beliefs. Our testimony is what we do because we know from our own experience that it is what we have to do. Instead of starting from our heads, it rises up from the ground on which we stand.

Our corporate testimony is all of those actions that we have discerned together as a Yearly Meeting, including the refusal of violence and commitment to peacemaking, speaking truthfully, refusing to participate in gambling or speculation, and working towards becoming a low-carbon community. These aspects of our life together are not a list of rules or principles. The fundamental value of the corporate Quaker testimonies is as a guide to discerning our own leadings. By reminding us of the ways in which Friends have been led in the past, individually and collectively, the testimonies can help to sensitise us to the areas where the inward Guide may be nudging us in our own lives and situations.

Each of us will be led differently at different times in our lives, because each of us has our own experiences, talents and contribution to offer to the world. One of the gifts of being in community is that each of us brings something different, and that none of us has to try to do everything. Through the discernment of the whole gathered community, we are helped to see where our own blind spots and resistances are, to become more aware of the areas where we are less inclined to heed the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. The aim is not to be morally perfect, but simply to become more whole, more true to reality and faithful to the way that the Spirit is moving within us, for our happiness and for the healing of the world.

This post is based on a talk given as part of the Woodbrooke course 'A New Vision of the Quaker Way' in July 2015.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Return within

The goal of the Quaker way is so simple that it can be summed up in one sentence. It is to become completely responsive to the leadings of the Inward Guide. In the beautiful words of Francis Howgill:

"Return, return to Him that is the first Love, and the first-born of every creature, who is the Light of the world… Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him." 
(Quaker faith & practice, 26.71) 

This is all that is needed for our healing and happiness, for the reconciliation of the world and the flourishing of our relationship with the earth. If each person simply became fully responsive to the 'promptings of love and truth' in their hearts, then war, economic exploitation and environmental destruction would be impossible, and the Beloved Community would flourish. This is what all of our Quaker practices, culture and organisation exist for, and the sole test of their validity is whether they are useful for guiding people into this capacity for spiritual attention and responsiveness to the Inward Light. 

This way of attentiveness and faithfulness to the Spirit doesn't depend on any specific beliefs, but it can be inhibited by our own actions, our unconscious resistance, or by any belief system that requires us to ignore crucial aspects of our own experience, or to close our hearts to people defined as 'other'. These can include dogmatic rationalism just as much as some religious or political ideologies. 

Unfortunately, by the time that we come to adulthood each of us is already to a greater or lesser extent opposed to the Light within us; somehow we have all armoured ourselves against the inbreaking of the light. The religious path is simply the process of dissolving these defences, becoming more aware, sensitive and open to the inner guidance that is always available. To anyone who has seriously tried to follow a religious path it is obvious that this is far easier said than done, but there are many practices that can be helpful in this process. I would like to share some of the practices that have been most important for me, and invite you to reflect on your own. 

  • Making deliberate choices to protect ourselves from mental pollution, overwork, excessive busyness, noise and constant distraction. Taking time to become aware of our own feelings, thoughts and surroundings, and the needs and feelings of those around us. 

  • Making a regular discipline of one or more practices that focus our intention and attention. A regular practice such as prayer, meditation, journalling, spiritual reading, mindful movement etc helps to remind us of our intention to return to awareness. Discipline is important, because staying with a practice even when it becomes uncomfortable or boring is often when we discover the aspects of ourselves that we have been hiding from. 

  • Finding a supportive community and investing in relationships with people who can encourage and challenge us. Friendship is a crucial and often-neglected aspect of the spiritual path, which is too often represented as a solitary, individual task. None of us is strong enough to do it on our own. We need friends around us who can sustain us when we are confused or discouraged, and who are willing to share their questions and struggles. 

  • Allowing our lives to be shaped by the ethical guidance of a mature tradition, such as the Quaker 'Advices & Queries'. This can help us to avoid falling into some of the most common traps that tend to deaden our empathy for othersAdopting some ethical guidelines doesn't mean striving to fulfill impossible ideals of perfection. Instead, we could see them as supports for the quality of life and consciousness that helps us to stay awake and attentive to the Spirit. 

Above all, perhaps, we need to decide not to despair of ourselves; to accept that we are not perfect and never will be, and to forgive ourselves for our failures and inner resistance. The religious path is not a self-improvement project. We do not need to labour to perfect ourselves, only to return to ourselves, to our capacity to listen and respond to the inward Guide. 

All of us have a tendency to become trapped by our own identity, habits and opinions. Many of us carry a burden of hardened attitudes and accumulated habits that seems to weigh us down. Very often, it is only the suffering caused by our own failures that finally breaks through our defences, wakes us up and enables us to turn around. It is the moment when we become conscious of our distance from God, our refusal of the Light, that is the critical opportunity, the blessed season. Perhaps it is only this that will enable us to take our life seriously, to recognise that it is bigger than our own small stories about ourselves, and begin to sense the great mystery of our own life. For the Sufi poet Rumi, it is through failure that we learn to become attentive to the Guide within: 

"You know how it is. Sometimes we plan a trip to one place, but something takes us to another. 
When a horse is being broken, the trainer pulls it in many different directions, so the horse will come to know what it is to be ridden. 
The most beautiful and alert horse is one completely attuned to the rider. 
God fixes a passionate desire in you, and then disappoints you. God does that a hundred times! 
God breaks the wings of one intention and then gives you another, cuts the rope of contriving, so you'll remember your dependence. 
But sometimes your plans work out! You feel fulfilled and in control. 
That's because, if you were always failing, you might give up. But remember, it is by failures that lovers stay aware of how they are loved. 
Failure is the key to the kingdom within." 
(Mathnawi, 1273) 

Being released from our habit-formed carapace of habits, attitudes and obsessions opens up the possibility of spontaneity in how we respond to the world. This quality of spontaneity is often noticeable among people who are on a path of opening to the Spirit. As a fairly new attender at our Meeting once observed, "the thing about the Quakers I've met is you never know what they are going to say next". 

We also need great patience with ourselves (and others), recognising that the habits of inner resistance are often loosened only with the passage of many years. The early Friend Luke Cock could be a model for us of this quality of patience, testifying that:

"I said to my Guide, ‘Nay, I doubt I never can follow up here: but don’t leave me: take my pace, I pray Thee, for I mun rest me.’ So I tarried here a great while, till my wife cried, ‘We’se all be ruined: what is thee ganging stark mad to follow t’silly Quakers?’ Here I struggled and cried, and begged of my Guide to stay and take my pace: and presently my wife was convinced. ‘Well,’ says she, ‘now follow thy Guide, let come what will. The Lord hath done abundance for us: we will trust in Him.’ Nay, now, I thought, I’ll to my Guide again, now go on, I’ll follow Thee truly; so I got to the end of this lane cheerfully… 
My Guide led me up another lane, more difficult than any of the former, which was to bear testimony to that Hand that had done all this for me. This was a hard one: I thought I must never have seen the end of it. I was eleven years all but one month in it." 
(Quaker faith & practice, 20.22) 

What practices or experiences have helped you to 'return within' to the guidance of the Inward Light? How have you seen the fruits of growing freedom, awareness or spontaneity in your own life? 

Saturday, 30 May 2015

A Gathered People

When I joined the Religious Society of Friends eleven years ago, what I found most moving was the sense of becoming part of an extended family of Quakers past and present. It is a family which contains some wonderful ancestors and fascinating far-flung cousins, as well as a full share of rather peculiar aunts and uncles. By becoming a Quaker, I felt that I was being accepted into the shared history and inner life of this world-wide, centuries-old Quaker family. I was no longer just an individual seeker on a solitary spiritual journey, but part of a 'people', with its own shared stories and culture; sometimes baffling or infuriating, but now also part of my story too.

Most of us in modern, western societies have been taught to value above all else the virtues of freedom, privacy, independence, self-reliance and individuality. In fact, our culture has formed us in the image of the restless, dynamic capitalism memorably described by Karl Marx:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
(Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

The prospect of complete freedom from all 'fixed, fast-frozen relations' can be exhilarating, and it has exercised a powerful attraction for the modern imagination; but for many of us there comes a time when the absence of social rootedness leaves us feeling isolated, anxious and depressed. In severe cases this condition contributes to the current epidemic of anxiety and depression in western societies, but it is even more commonly experienced as a pervasive sense of emptiness and meaninglessness. These appear to be symptomatic of our collective uprootedness and isolation; the starvation of our soul-needs for connection, identity, meaning, value and purpose.

In more traditional societies, that have been less uprooted by the forces of modernity, this condition of drastic solitude is virtually unknown. In rural Africa or Asia, you know who you are through your kinship relations and the shared stories, ancestors and religion of your people; as expressed in the African proverb 'a person is a person through other people.' People are born into a pre-existing sea of meaning, a vast network of relationships and mutual obligations within a specific culture and social identity. This is not a romanticised portrait of imaginary 'unspoilt' cultures. I have lived in a South African shanty town and a semi-rural community in Zimbabwe, where I saw at first hand the stark age, gender and tribal discrimination of traditional African culture. Traditional societies are often oppressive and violent, but they are not haunted by meaninglessness and isolation. People know who they are, and what the the purpose and meaning of their life is, because they are part of a people, which gives them a place in a wider story, embedded in relationships with a multitude of others in the past, present and future. This is the way that all people throughout human history have lived until very recently. The very evident advantages of industrial societies that have attracted people throughout the world into cities and away from the limitations of traditional rural life, like most modern remedies, also have their inevitable side-effects.

Wherever traditional people have been dispossessed of their land, culture and social bonds they have been devastated by suicide, crime, mental illness and addiction. As modern Europeans this is our story too; it happened in England first, at the start of the industrial era, before encompassing almost every nation on earth. It is the traumatic experience of industrialisation and urbanisation, and the continuing neoliberal assault on all social bonds, that has created the lonely, anxious, rootless and insecure modern psyche.

The unmet human soul needs for meaning, belonging and purpose have never gone away. Instead they provide a powerful source of motivation within a consumer economy. These needs are targeted by the entertainment and marketing industries, which offer to fulfil deep human needs for connection, status, identity, transcendence and security through the purchase of clothes, technology, holidays and insurance. These commodified experiences and products hook into soul needs that they can never satisfy, creating a cycle of addiction that is the perfect mechanism to drive the endless growth required by a capitalist economy. Consumerism is the hollow, ersatz spirituality of the industrial growth society.

We cannot overcome the hollow meaninglessness of modern society on our own. The solitary existential heroes of Sartre or Ayn Rand prove to be immature fantasies when tested by the reality of our vulnerable human lives. Our deeply rooted needs for meaning and belonging can only be satisfied by the same means that every other human culture has provided; through becoming part of a people. Modern westerners and other deracinated people throughout the world can do this in several ways, but it often involves identification with a religious or ethnic group. It is this impulse to overcome the rootless isolation of modern life that seems to be contributing to the resurgence of religious identity across the world, what John Michael Greer calls 'the second religiosity'. This new religiosity often takes fundamentalist forms, but it is not necessary for religious belonging to be authoritarian or dogmatic. In the Quaker tradition, it takes the form of what early Friends called 'a gathered people'.

A gathered people is not just an association of individuals who happen to share overlapping values or interests. It is formed by the raising and quickening of a new spiritual life and power within each person. Recognising this same Spirit at work in each other draws us into a bond of mutual belonging and commitment – a 'covenant', as described by the early Quaker Francis Howgill in this famous passage:

“And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire which the Life kindled in us to serve the Lord while we had a being, and mightily did the Word of God grow amongst us, and the desires of many were after the Name of the Lord. O happy day! O blessed day! the memorial of which can never pass out of my mind. And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.”
(Quaker faith & practice, 19.08)

When we recognise the life of the Spirit being kindled in another person, it calls forth an answering response in us; this is what early Friends meant by 'answering that of God' in others. A gathered people does not necessarily take the shape of a church, or any kind of formal organisation. It is a belonging to one another through shared hardship, commitment, mutual support, affection, obligation and forgiveness. My family experienced this most powerfully when we were living in Zimbabwe, through the faithful support of many members of our meeting in Sheffield through some very difficult times. Even Friends from our large Meeting who knew us very slightly wrote letters and sent parcels of gifts and books, and gave money to support us when we had to turn to them for help.

As modern Quakers, how can we recover this experience of being a gathered people? It means recognising that we are not isolated individuals on our own spiritual journeys, or just members of a particular local Quaker community, but also part of a living current of spiritual awakening that links us to Friends in the past and future throughout the world.

Do you have a sense of being part of a gathered people? How have you experienced this in your journey with Quakers?