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


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.

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?