Monday, 1 February 2016

The Breaking of Images

There is an enduring tendency in many of the world's religions, known as iconoclasm (literally 'the breaking of images'). Iconoclasm is the desire to eliminate all human creations that are judged to be idolatrous; including all images, organisations or rituals seen as standing in the way of the purity of religious truth.

The beginnings of the Quaker movement were strongly influenced by the Puritan culture of 17th century England, which was fiercely iconoclastic in the most literal way possible. Mary Penington (who was married to Isaac Penington) wrote approvingly of her first husband William Springett, a colonel in Cromwell's army, that:

"In every employment he expressed great zeal against superstition; encouraging and requiring his soldiers to break down all idolatrous statues and pictures, and crosses; going into steeple-houses, and taking away the priest's surplices, and distributing them to poor women. When he was upon the service of searching popish houses, whatever crucifixes, beads, and such like trumpery he found, if they were ever so rich, he destroyed them without ever reserving one of them for its beauty or costly workmanship; nor ever saved any other thing for his own use."
(On Quakers, Medicine and Property: The Autobiography of Mary Penington, 1624-1682)

She even has one startling anecdote which describes him visiting the house of a close friend and fellow Parliamentarian, where he found religious paintings hanging on the walls:

"But my dear husband thought it a very inconsistent, unequal thing, to destroy those things in popish houses, and leave them in the houses of their opponents. He therefore, with his sword, put them all out of the frames, and putting them thereon, carried them into the parlour; and the woman of the house being there, he said, "What a shame it is that your husband should be such a persecutor of the Papists and yet spare such things as these in his own house! But (said he) I have acted impartial judgment, by destroying them here." (ibid)

The religious revolution of George Fox and the early Quakers went even further than the Puritans. The first Quakers comprehensively rejected all contemporary church institutions, rituals, creeds and buildings, as well as art and music. This was all in the service of a direct, unmediated personal encounter with the 'Inward Christ'.

All religious images, structures, creeds and rituals have a tendency to become empty forms over time. The history of religion is littered with practices that began by pointing toward the mystery of spiritual encounter and ended up becoming tokens of group identity to be defended, imposed and fought over. Throughout history, the dynamic of renewal within religious traditions has involved the destruction of images that have become obstacles to spiritual insight, in order to open up the possibility of renewed contact with the spiritual reality that they have obscured. 

But we live by images. As soon as we destroy one set of images we are impelled to seek replacements. Spiritual renewal occurs when new, living images are found (or rediscovered) to replace those that have been outworn. This is what early Friends achieved, through the marvellously imagistic new religious language of 'the Seed', 'the Guide', 'the Inward Christ', 'the Inward Teacher' etc. They were also soon busy creating a new form of church organisation, and a unique Quaker culture, with its own ritualised forms of language and behaviour.

Iconoclasm privileges the word over the image. In its least constructive forms, it tends to focus on 'correct' belief; whether conceived as conformity to official orthodoxy, or as rational consistency. Some of the 'modernising' tendencies in our current Quaker culture also embody this iconoclastic principle, which represents the rationalising impulse applied to religion.

Iconoclasm aims to replace the profusion of traditional religious images, stories, local devotions and festivals, with a single, uniform and minimalist version of belief reduced to 'the fundamentals'. For fundamentalist religion this might be adherence to a literalistic creed. In liberal traditions such as British Quakerism this minimal, rational residue of religion, stripped of all its imagery, history and particularity is reduced to a list of 'values'. This exclusive emphasis on rational purity of belief can create an arid wasteland of the soul, with nothing to nourish the imagination or move the heart. 

Both secular and religious fundamentalist versions of iconoclasm share a too-exclusive emphasis on our 'head needs' for certainty, consistency and clarity, while ignoring our heart and soul needs for a measure of ambiguity and mystery; for images that touch the heart and fire the imagination. We need living, soulful images far more than rationally consistent 'beliefs'.

How can we find, or rediscover, the living images that can renew our capacity for spiritual awakening and encounter?

Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Faces of God

"There is a fine old story about a student who came to a rabbi and said, 'In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God. Why don’t they any more?' The rabbi replied, 'Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.'” 

(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963)


For many Friends today, it is difficult to know how to make sense of Quaker worship, given the radical differences in religious understanding within Britain Yearly Meeting.

When we do not share our spiritual experience and beliefs with each other, differences are easily ignored. So long as we abide by the 'behavioural creed' of the Quaker meeting for worship (ie sitting still, and speaking without any suggestion of certainty) we all appear to be doing the same thing. But this only works if Friends are careful in their vocal ministry to avoid words or topics that they suspect may generate strong reactions from others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why spoken ministry tends towards the anodyne in many meetings. We are semi-consciously steering away from sentiments that may expose the hidden reefs of disagreement that lie just under the smooth surface of our meetings for worship.

Needless to say, this is not a recipe for spiritual vitality or prophetic ministry. So perhaps it is a hopeful sign that there seems to be a growing level of open disagreement in some of our meetings, as more Friends are finding the courage to discuss their beliefs with each other. This can be an uncomfortable process, and it may be tempting to try to suppress conflict by returning to a culture of inhibition. But conflict can signal the potential for renewal, if we can deal with our disagreements in a constructive way, with a sincere desire for the flourishing of our Friends and growing mutual understanding.

The chapter on 'approaches to God' in Quaker faith & practice includes a wide range of perspectives on the meaning of worship; from adoration of a divine Being, to simple awareness of present experience. It is not always clear that these understandings of worship are mutually compatible, and some of them may feel very alien to some readers. Perhaps one helpful way to approach an understanding of such very different perspectives is through the image of the differing ‘faces’ which spiritual reality can present to us.

The mystical traditions of many religions testify that the mystery of spiritual reality is greater than any of our concepts of it. This suggests that understandings which appear to be very different, and even incompatible, may reflect fragments of a greater whole seen from the perspectives of people with different temperaments and experiences. One of the most obvious differences is between personal and impersonal understandings of spiritual reality (or ‘God’, used as a symbol for the totality of spiritual reality beyond our limited categories).

The Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects'. Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in 'an old man on a cloud'. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence. This understanding reflects an extraordinarily common experience among people from very different religious traditions. It is reflected in the writings of virtually all Friends until very recent times, expressed in diverse images including 'Guide', ‘Creator’, ‘Lord’, ‘Inward Christ’ and many others.

Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich. The language of early Quakers is also full of images that reflect the 'impersonal face of God', including 'Seed' 'Inward Light', ‘Principle of Life’ and ‘Universal Righteousness’ among others. The use of these impersonal symbols reflects a concrete experience of God as a source of energy, illumination and connection to ultimate reality.

Of course, this distinction between the personal and impersonal faces of God highlights only one dimension of the diversity of religious experience. It is also possible to experience and understand the divine in a multitude of other ways, including an agnosticism which is attached to no definite views or concepts, but is simply open to the possibility of encounter with that which one does not yet know.

All of these ways of experiencing and relating to 'God' can be brought into the practice of Quaker worship. 'Our response to an awareness of God' does not rely on any particular belief about which aspect of God we are responding to - whether personal, impersonal or otherwise. Quaker worship is not limited to those who use the same concepts and images, or who experience God in exactly the same way, since these all vary according to our particular life history, temperament and cultural background.

It is profoundly unhelpful to turn our different experiences and images into a game of identity politics; saying in effect 'I am a nontheist and I need to stand up for nontheists against theists’ (or vice versa). This kind of thinking is premised on mutual suspicion and only tends to escalate it. We would do far better to refuse to play this game, and instead practice listening to each others' experience in order to enrich our own understanding of the inexhaustible breadth of spiritual reality.

Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.

It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don't need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

How do personal or impersonal images of God speak to you? Has the practice of Quaker worship changed your experience and understanding of spiritual reality?

This post is a response to the 'Reading Quaker faith & practice' project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Seeking God's Will

"It is this belief that God’s will can be recognised through the discipline of silent waiting which distinguishes our decision-making process from the secular idea of consensus. We have a common purpose in seeking God’s will through waiting and listening, believing that every activity of life should be subject to divine guidance." 
A Quaker community is not just a collection of individuals who come together for common activities, like a social club or campaigning group. What distinguishes Quaker community from a purely secular organisation is the experience of being a 'gathered people'. We have been brought together by a common call; a leading of the Spirit within each person that is drawing us together for a purpose that is not our own. 
Our Quaker communities are grounded in the practice of spiritual discernment. Quaker discernment is not consensus. It is a form of perception - of insight into a depth of reality that we can trust to guide us, and that is wider and deeper than whatever attitudes and values we bring individually or collectively to the occasion. This practice relies on a shared trust that there is a reliable source of guidance and authority to be found, that is not simply a projection of our own wishes and values. This does not assume any particular theology; it is compatible with many kinds of religious belief and even with a thorough-going agnosticism. All that is essential is our practical willingness to listen for, and to follow the leadings of the 'Inward Guide'. This is not so much a matter of 'belief' as an inner attitude of openness to the possibility of guidance, and trusting sufficiently in it to follow in the way we are led. 
One traditional Quaker formulation for this experience of inward guidance is 'God's will'. This expression may be understood in many ways; as the intentions of a divine personality, in a more impersonal sense such as the character of ultimate reality, or simply as a 'marker' for an experience that transcends rational explanation. The experience itself is common to people of many religious traditions; including those that do not have a concept of a personal God. 
Our collective experience is that access to this inward guidance is not limited to a special few, but is potentially available to the whole community that practices 'the discipline of silent waiting' together. Our non-hierarchical forms of organisation and decision-making are grounded in this historical experience, rather than any abstract principle of equality. If discernment were restricted to only a few people with special insight or advanced training, we would have been right to adopt a hierarchical form of church government, as have most Catholic and Buddhist organisations. But the Spirit can, and does, speak through even the least confident or experienced Friend, if they are willing to follow the discipline of Quaker practices.
How have you experienced the discernment of 'God's will' in your own life or in a Quaker community?
This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Solidarity

"How can the people of Ordsall, where I work, become our neighbours, our sisters and our brothers, especially when we do not know them personally?... come and meet the people in Ordsall with me. You will sense inequality tangibly; you will become aware of the huge range of opportunities which you have and they do not; you will understand the struggle to make ends meet, the problems of debt, ill-health, premature ageing and death, and the hopelessness which is the experience of many."
(Jonathan Dale, Quaker faith & practice 23.50)

One of the striking features of the Quaker faith & practice chapter on 'Social Responsibility', is that this passage by Jonathan Dale is one of very few that emphasise the importance of personal relationship with people experiencing poverty and exclusion.

By contrast, most of the chapter reflects a set of assumptions about Quakers' distance from the people who are represented as the objects of our concern and solicitude. This 'top-down' perspective assumes that we are the ones with the capacity to provide solutions to the problems faced by those who are less fortunate and less able to help themselves. This is, of course, a common attitude among socially privileged groups, and it represents a long-standing pattern in Quaker thought and practice since the 18th Century, when Friends first became a predominantly bourgeois movement.

Many of these sentiments are expressed in terms of 'principles' that should be applied to the reform of society, such as the section on 'Foundations of a true social order' (23.16) which includes aspirational statements such as:

“Mutual service should be the principle upon which life is organised. Service, not private gain, should be the motive of all work.”

Britain Yearly Meeting is currently working towards an updated version of these principles, in order to produce a new 'Foundations of a true social order' document for our times. This seems to me not the most helpful way of reflecting on our role in fulfilling the Spirit's leadings in the world.

One of the problems with this approach is that no society is, or can be, founded on abstract 'principles'. Actual human societies are built of relationships. These are principally the power relationships that determine who has access to resources and opportunities, as well as who determines the limits of acceptable public discourse. But there are also relationships of solidarity and co-operation both within and between different social groups. Rather than continuing to base our thinking about social testimony on inventing principles for what society should be like, it might be more constructive to focus on relationships, and specifically the possibilities for solidarity between groups with unequal access to power and resources.

Much of our current thinking about Quaker social testimony is modelled on the movement for the abolition of slavery. In some ways this is perhaps an unfortunate starting point, because abolitionism (at least in the UK) is largely an example of a movement that was carried out for and to African slaves, by campaigners who in most cases had no personal contact or relationship with them at all.

By contrast, the various 'theologies of liberation' that have emerged since the 1970s in the Catholic and Protestant churches have demonstrated that the most creative insights are not derived from detached academic analysis and philanthropy. Instead, they arise from the first-hand experience of people who are victimised by power and those who live in relationship with them. They have taught us that relationship with people who are excluded is sacramental. It leads us into conflict because it gives a view of the world from the perspective of those who do not count. The gift of personal relationship is the recovery of this prophetic perspective. It is a challenge to our own identity, as well as to the common Quaker attachment to a non-conflictual world-view.

An alternative 'liberationist' model for Quaker thought and practice might focus more deliberately on the example of Friends who have intimate personal experience of social inequality and injustice; whether as members of excluded groups themselves, or through living and working closely with them, in relationships of shared risk and mutual aid. These are relationships of solidarity rather than charity, learning from and struggling alongside each other instead of 'helping'. There is a rich tradition of Friends who have lived solidarity in this way, only a very few of whom are represented in Quaker faith & practice, such as Dorothy Case (23.34), Stephen Henry Hobhouse (23.51), Joan Frances Layton (23.60) and Jonathan Dale.

There are many other contemporary Friends and meetings engaged in this faithful, long-term 'being with' excluded and victimised people. In our own area meeting there are Friends who have long-lasting friendships with refugees, prisoners and homeless people. There are also Friends who have lived through exile, poverty, homelessness and imprisonment themselves. We need to hear these voices, and the insights that they can bring us, in order to discern our calling as a community of faith to participate in the healing of the world.

Have you experienced relationships that have given you new understanding of God's purposes?  Has your own experience of exclusion or injustice given you insights to share with the wider Quaker community?

This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. Next month's post will be a response to Chapter 3: General counsel on church affairs. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life's Afternoon

Photo: Eric Sheppard
We must be confident that there is still more ‘life’ to be ‘lived’ and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press ‘towards the goal of their high calling’. They cease learning, cease growing; they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, not by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom.
(Evelyn Sturge, 1949, Quaker faith & practice 21.45)

The passage from adolescence to adulthood is a familiar life-challenge. For most of us it involves discovering a sense of identity, establishing ourselves in the world of work, finding a partner and creating a family. For some, the challenge of adulthood includes pursuing the ambition to make their mark on the world, to succeed in a career or to 'make a difference', perhaps following a sense of calling or vocation.

Later in life there arrives the invitation to a second passage that is less well-charted. We approach this when we begin to recognise that the future is no longer open to endless possibilities. This is the life we have ended up with; this is the marriage or divorce or single life that we have made. It is now too late to have chosen a different direction, lived a different life and become a different person. We realise that we will now never achieve most of our early ambitions; that even our successes turned out not to bring the kind of fulfilment we had expected. This is the beginning of the transition to what is sometimes known as a 'second adulthood'.

It is at this point, perhaps, that so many men and women 'give up and resign from life.' Others attempt to fight against the failure of their hopes by redoubling their efforts to become more successful, or searching for a different, more satisfactory partner. On the verge of the second adulthood, all the life that we have left unlived clamours for our attention. We may be tempted to fight against it by clinging tightly to the same strategies and ideals that have guided us so far, when life is asking of us something very different.

Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life... worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon according to the programme of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
(Carl Jung, Psychological Reflections, 1953)

This stage of life brings many people to a Quaker meeting for the first time; disillusioned with their former identities and on a journey of inward discovery. For some, it is a path out of some form of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, that has occupied all their energies and provided a strong sense of purpose for their adult life so far.

Dogmatic thinking represents a strong temptation for many people in the first half of life, as they struggle to forge a strong sense of self and to find a way of making a mark on the world. Fundamentalist religious beliefs, political ideologies or dogmatic rationalism all demand that we exclude parts of our experience from awareness. They require us to be righteous and right-thinking, to deny everything in us that is mysterious and subversive, and all the ways that the world fails to match up to the creed's authorised narrative. The longer we try to live up to these demands, the more denied and unacknowledged experience we accumulate, and the greater the effort needed to defend an increasingly fragile world view. Eventually, if the weight of contradictory reality becomes too great to sustain, we face the collapse of our former certainties and the call to a new, more inclusive understanding of reality.

We are challenged to discover who we are when we find that we are not the person we tried to be. If we are patient and compassionate with ourselves, and are fortunate to have friends who can listen to everything in us that we find hard to acknowledge, we may come to accept our failings and darkness as indispensable to living on the far side of disillusionment.

You finally discover that it is not good to spend your life trying to be good and aligning yourself with the virtuous people of the world. It might be better to avoid that divided self altogether and instead simply live with compassion for yourself and others. You are not perfect and you never will be.
(Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, 2004)

The Quaker way offers a path of spiritual discovery that moves in the opposite direction to all forms of ideological thinking. It is based on the practice of openness to reality; developing sensitivity and responsiveness to the subtle movements of the inward Guide. The Quaker meeting for worship offers a practice for developing the awareness of what is, rather than insisting that reality conform to our ideas of what it should be. It is an opportunity to sink down to the Seed of presence within us, to recognise that we are engaged in the mysterious process that Thomas Moore calls 'incubating your soul, not living a heroic adventure' (ibid).

Abandoning the dream of 'aligning yourself with the virtuous people of the world' does not mean giving up any attempt to have a positive influence or to challenge those things that need changing. But without so much ego invested in our work we may act differently, and with fewer unwanted side-effects. Those who have discovered their own limitations and mixed motives don't need to use their actions to constantly prop up a fragile sense of self. They are freer to act with detachment from results; to respond from compassion rather than frustration, and to reach out to people whom they are no longer inclined to treat as enemies. This is the place of deepening practical wisdom expressed by Thomas Merton in his famous letter to the young peace activist Jim Forest during the Vietnam War:

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.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

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.

(Thomas Merton, Letter to a Young Activist, 1966)

How have you experienced the passage into a second adulthood? Have you discovered a way through disillusionment into the place where you are 'open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it'?


This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. Next month's post will be a response to Chapter 23: Social responsibility. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Light, Seed and Guide

When Quakers talk about spiritual reality, they often produce lists of substitute words, such as 'God, the Divine, the Tao, Goddess, or whatever you call it'. The implication seems to be that all of these terms are synonymous, and the point of the list is to indicate that diverse names and beliefs are equally acceptable, and are all talking about the same thing. The specific connotations of different words are usually downplayed, because the list is a way of signalling our openness to theological diversity, rather than describing our own spiritual experience.

By contrast, the religious language of early Quakers was not concerned with abstract theological gestures, but with communicating real personal experience. Early Friends avoided the tendency of much mainstream Christian theology to try to tie down spiritual reality into neat categories that can be intellectually mastered, independently of our own lived experience. The first generation of Quakers created a shared vocabulary that was extraordinarily rich in symbolism and metaphor, rather than a system of precise theological definitions.

Early Friends used a great diversity of spiritual language, drawing on the rich metaphorical resources of the Bible as well as inventing their own terms, such as 'the Inward Light', 'the Seed', 'the Principle of Life', 'the Guide', 'the Inward Teacher', 'Inward Christ' and many others. This rich vocabulary was not just a list of interchangeable synonyms. The different metaphors expressed the diverse range of personal spiritual experience, and hinted at the multifaceted nature of ultimate reality.

The language used by modern Quakers draws on a much wider range of religious traditions, but our specifically Quaker vocabulary is rather thin by comparison. The most popular modern Quaker religious metaphor is probably that of 'the Inner Light'. The symbolism of light suggests something that reveals and informs. This is, of course, an important aspect of Quaker spirituality, but it is far from the whole of it. Doug Gwyn has contrasted this modern focus on the metaphor of light with the more neglected early Quaker language of the 'seed':

'We speak of the light to describe the revealing, guiding, discerning aspects of God's presence within. By contrast, the language of the seed hints at other aspects, ones we are more likely to avoid. Early Friends wrote of the seed as the power of God, the promise of God, the inheritance of God sown within each human heart. It is sown there in compassion toward us, sown in the hope that each one of us will become a true and faithful child of God. But this seed within germinates and rises to new life only as we sink down to it. The Seed is the power of God's will. While the light reveals God's will to us, lets us know it, the seed is about the power to do it here and now . Or again, while the light inspires in us thoughts that are not necessarily our thoughts; the seed raises a will in us that is not necessarily our will. That implies that there is some kind of death to be encountered in ourselves if we are to know the power of the seed.

That dimension of our spiritual growth is threatening to all of us. We want more light, we want to see more. Then we will make our own decisions. We do not want to give up control. We do not want to subject our will to something beyond us, even if it is something deep within us. Perhaps this is why we do not hear the language of the seed often among Friends today! Yet I find that Friends that want to go deeper, Friends who want to expand the horizons of their faith, end up going elsewhere to find that other dimension. Some leave Friends altogether, feeling that their meeting can't get to that deeper level. But many are able to remain Friends while finding that other dimension through other spiritual disciplines. They go on Buddhist Vipassana retreats, they spend time at Zen Centers, or at Catholic monasteries. They find the rigor of spiritual discipline, the depth dimension, elsewhere, and that's fine. But we have that depth dimension in our own tradition. We need to reclaim it today.'
(Douglas Gwyn, Sink Down to the Seed, 1996)

There are, of course, many other aspects of spiritual experience that call for attentive naming. Another key early Quaker metaphor was that of the 'Inward Guide'. The image of the guide perhaps points us towards an area of experience that links the seed and the light. The guide draws us towards what the light reveals. It creates the willingness to 'sink down to the Seed', to give our consent to the new will that is gradually germinating within us.

I understand this guide not just in the sense of one who shows the way, but also as the one who reveals to us the beauty of the journey, and awakens a desire to follow. It is the voice of the guide that is heard by the prophet Hosea in the Bible; 'So then, I Myself will entice her, I will bring her into the wilderness and speak to her heart.' Hosea (2:14)

The Inward Guide could stand for that aspect of our inner experience that awakens to the beauty of life when it is lived from the seed of God within. Often, the Guide speaks to us through the example of others' lives, revealing the attractiveness of compassion, generosity and courage, and awakening a desire to discover our own potential for these qualities. We have encountered the Guide at those times when the world appears illuminated by the possibility of selflessness and communion; when we sense the promise that 'the world will be saved by beauty' (Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 1868).

True inward transformation is not effected purely by ethical idealism or a sense of duty. It relies on longing desire; a movement of the heart that opens us to the possibilities of a richer, more beautiful and selfless life. People whose hearts are awakened in this way become willing to surrender themselves, to sink down to the seed, to consent to become someone else for other people. Simplifying their lives, sharing their possessions, and even physical risk and hardship become easy and attractive in the course of this movement. They willingly and enthusiastically abandon anything that hinders them from pursuing the 'pearl of great price', the new richness of life that has been revealed to them.


What words or images help to express your experience of spiritual reality? Are there aspects of your spiritual experience that call for new or rediscovered religious language?

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 the reality of 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.