Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.(Rumi, from 'Story Water', in 'Selected Poems')
“The first Quakers discovered a source of insight, power and guidance within themselves, which they called by various names, including ‘the Inward Guide’, ‘the Light’, ‘the Seed’, ‘the Inward Teacher’ and ‘the Inward Christ’. Over centuries, the Religious Society of Friends has developed and refined a tradition of spiritual practice that can help to nurture a conscious connection to this source of inward guidance.”(Craig Barnett, The Guided Life)
But this is not a vague or random process. Quaker practice blends key principles into a method used faithfully since the late seventeenth century. It comes from regular commitment to personal discernment, which in turn underpins the ability of a group to discern too. Although there are many aspects of a process of discernment, in practice they blend in a fluid way, and may include:
“in the depth of common worship it is as if we found our separate lives were all one life, within whom we live and move and have our being.”
(Thomas Kelly, Quaker faith & practice 2.36)
Without any cultural signposts to guide us through the transition from the first to the second half of life, we may experience it as a frightening rupture, instead of an anticipated stage of maturation and opportunity.
Many other cultures do provide maps to guide people through the major transitions of life, and they can offer useful insights for those of us who are seeking to make sense of our own life passages.
"The work of silence is so simple, yet to go against the grain of society and the culture is very difficult. But it is worth the effort: the work of silence and the way of being in the world that is beholding provide stability and even joy in a disintegrating world. People who undertake to live like this become beacons, islands of safety where others can find a refuge. The resonances of silence permeate the world around them, whether they are aware of them or not."
At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case that offends us… I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.White people who want to oppose racism are not innocent of this reaction. In some ways, we may be more inclined to defensiveness, because we so badly want to be in the right - to be seen to be innocent of racism and absolved of any responsibility for it:
White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived… White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”Unfortunately, on the subject of race there is no guarantee of always being in the right. There is no way as a white person in a racially unequal society that we can be certain of never doing or saying things that have a racist impact. Having Quaker values does not prevent us from contributing to patterns of behaviour that are harmful to people of colour. Racism cannot be eradicated just by good intentions, because it is not simply a matter of white people’s explicit attitudes. Above all, racism is the way that even unintentional words and behaviour impact harmfully and repeatedly on the same people, because of unequal access to power.
(Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility)
The basic idea of the Day of Visitation is that there is a period of time in everyone’s life when they are open to hearing the voice of the Divine and acting on it. If they are attentive and obedient to this Divine Seed, it will grow and flourish in them and they will be led into a greater and stronger faith. If they ignore it, if they push it down and trample on the seed, eventually it will stop growing.
(William Taber, The Day of Visitation)
Worship is a movement of our whole being towards a spiritual reality that is ultimately mysterious, but that we can know by experience. Quakers name this reality as God, Spirit, Light, or in a range of other ways.
In the practice of Quaker worship, we meet together to turn our attention towards the Inward Light. Quakers have traditionally understood the Inward Light as a divine gift of spiritual perception. It enables us to see our true situation, by uncovering our deepest insights and motivations. This Inward Light also reveals the guidance of the Spirit for us as individuals and communities. In Quaker worship, we “wait in the Light”. We wait in stillness to see what is revealed to us in the depths of our own awareness.
In a Quaker meeting for worship the gathered community may encounter a shared depth of stillness and a sense of divine presence. When this experience is shared by most or all of those present, there is a profound sense of being united in the Spirit that Quakers refer to as a “gathered” meeting;
“a meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool; a silence where words emerge, only to deepen and enrich that rich silence, and where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament-fine.”
(Gerald Hewitson, 2013)
Through waiting in the Light, we may come to a wordless encounter with the inward source of life and power – a sense of loving Presence beneath thoughts and concepts. In that place, we become receptive to the insights of love and truth that may arise to teach us, and that might lead us to offer spoken ministry.
In Quaker worship new insights may come to anyone in the community, whatever their age or experience, and they will be listened to as potential bearers of divine guidance. Anyone who takes part in a Quaker meeting for worship may be led by the Spirit to speak spontaneously to the meeting, to pass on whatever insights or guidance they have received. This reflects the Quaker emphasis on worship as a source of guidance towards action. The purpose of Quaker worship is to encounter the source of inward transformation that may inspire and lead us to act; to speak in a Meeting for Worship, to make some change in our own lives, or to work for change in our community or society.
The Quaker way of worship is marked by its great simplicity. Quaker worship does not rely on a particular building or specially-qualified ministers. It is open to everyone on a basis of complete equality; whatever our gender, sexuality or background. Quaker worship does not require special techniques or great natural ability, but it does demand our self-discipline and self-surrender.
“Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.”
(Isaac Penington, 1661)
“I had an experience aboard a Greyhound bus in America that gave me a sense of being lifted up, held, and since then perpetually accompanied by what I call God, but which I know is ultimately a mystery that is not for me to know too closely.”Some people who experience the breaking-in of spiritual reality find themselves led towards a religious community that still maintains some link with an enchanted perspective.
(Living the Quaker Way)
|Photo: Alan Paxton|
“When religion is real, it throws the centre of our interest and our action right outside ourselves. It is not about myself at all, or only incidentally and for a purpose that is not my own. It is about the world I live in and the part that I must play in it. It is not to serve my need but the need of the world through me. Real religion is not something that you possess but rather a power that lays hold of you and uses you in service of a will that is greater than your own.”This is an extract from my new book 'The Guided Life', which is available now from the Quaker Bookshop.
(Macmurray ‘Search for a Faith’)
"This book will appeal to people who want a better understanding of the Quaker way. They might have heard what Quakers stand for, what sort of things they do – much has been said and written about these things. This book explores the experience behind all that. It shows how the practice of 'waiting in the light,' for example, can gives us an insight into our life that enables us to see how better to live it. The practice does this by putting us in touch with a source of wisdom within us that we are not normally aware of, because we rely too much on words and talk, on our own attempts to work things out for ourselves. The Quaker way is a matter of allowing ourselves to be 'guided'.
'The guided life', it must be said, is not a life that will appeal to many moderns. They want to guide life themselves. But Craig Barnett shows in this thoughtful analysis that taking control of one's life in this way, though helpful up to a point, eventually limits it and frustrates it. His many examples from contemporary experience, his own as well as others', will resonate with many people and help them see the point of the spiritual practice he recommends.
This is surely one of the best descriptions of the Quaker way of life we have. It explains so clearly the human experience on which it is based, the practical exercises we can undertake to follow it, and the outcome of following it in a wholesome, joyful life that is shared with other people."
(The Guided Life - an appreciation, Rex Ambler)
We agree that the Society of Friends is a community centred on the practice of waiting, listening meeting for worship, We agree that differences of understanding about what it is we listen to or worship do not prevent us from practising meeting for worship together. (p.79)That is a fair summary of where we got to in the Theology Thinktank and it marks the important realisation that, for all our differences, we Quakers were able to unite on our distinctive practice.
Quakers in Britain are diverse in matters of belief and the language we use to describe them and that is to be celebrated. We also experience in our meetings unity and oneness in the depths of our worship together. We should be true to our own beliefs, and listen deeply to other people's experiences, as well as their words. We remember that sometimes ambiguity, and archaic phrases from former times, enable Quakers to search for the meaning for themselves and interpret it as they are led. Who are we, and who do we aspire to be? Can we also offer each other support by sharing honestly our real lived lives, including the parts we are not so proud of?Toleration of diversity in this sense seems vital to the liberal culture we want to encourage among Friends and in society at large. Some Friends are even urging that toleration of different views is part of the meaning of Quakerism itself. It is part of what is meant by our commitment to equality and unconditional love. But we can see on reflection that this cannot be right. We do not tolerate practices that undermine our discipline or bring the Society into disrepute. We do not tolerate violent or abusive practices, or understandings of life which encourage these things. We are committed as Quakers to a certain understanding of life and how it is to be lived, which is why we have the practices we have. In particular, we have testimonies against war, oppression, poverty, untruthfulness and formal doctrine. We cannot really separate what we do as Quakers from the understanding that undergirds it and the understanding we want to convey to others by doing it. Our commitment is, and always has been, primarily to truth, that is, truth as we experience it and bear witness to it. Our understanding of the truth changes over time, of course, as the realities change. The above minute 31 also says, quoting our current Book of Discipline approvingly,
We are seeking but we are also the holders of a precious heritage of discoveries. We, like every generation, must find the Light and Life again for ourselves. Only what we have valued and truly made our own, not by assertion but by lives of faithful commitment, can be handed on to the future. Even then, we must humbly acknowledge that our vision of the truth will again and again be amended.That is one reason we cannot fix it in a doctrine. And that is one reason that we have a Book of Discipline and revise it every generation or so. Here is our written testimony to the truth of our situation as it now is and as we now see it.
We have used the image of a caravan travelling together through the desert – some in the centre, carrying luggage and supplies; others scouting the way or exploring nearby routes; all visibly travelling as part of the same body.It gave expression to the experience we had in the group when we had listened carefully and patiently to what everyone had said, appreciated the experience and thought out of which it came, and were then able to discern the underlying unity in our experience. We knew, not theoretically but experientially, that we were 'travelling as part of the same body.'
The right conduct of our meetings for church affairs depends upon all coming to them in an active, seeking spirit, not with minds already made up on a particular course of action, determined to push this through at all costs. But open minds are not empty minds, nor uncritically receptive: the service of the meeting calls for knowledge of facts, often painstakingly acquired, and the ability to estimate their relevance and importance. This demands that we shall be ready to listen to others carefully, without antagonism if they express opinions which are unpleasing to us, but trying always to discern the truth in what they have to offer. It calls, above all, for spiritual sensitivity. If our meetings fail, the failure may well be in those who are ill-prepared to use the method rather than in the inadequacy of the method itself.
It is always to be recognized that, coming together with a variety of temperaments, of backgrounds, education and experience, we shall have differing contributions to make to any deliberation. It is no part of Friends' concern for truth that any should be expected to water down a strong conviction or be silent merely for the sake of easy agreement. Nevertheless we are called to honour our testimony that to every one is given a measure of the light, and that it is in the sharing of knowledge, experience and concern that the way towards unity will be found....
The unity we seek depends on the willingness of us all to seek the truth in each other's utterances; on our being open to persuasion; and in the last resort on a willingness to recognize and accept the sense of the meeting as recorded in the minute, knowing that our dissenting views have been heard and considered....
In a meeting rightly held a new way may be discovered which none present had alone perceived and which transcends the differences of the opinions expressed. This is an experience of creative insight, leading to a sense of the meeting which a clerk is often led in as remarkable way to record. Those who have shared this experience will not doubt its reality and the certainty it brings of the immediate rightness of the way for the meeting to take.
(Quaker Faith and Practice, 3.05-06.)You notice that what a meeting is primarily concerned about, even in its discussion of practical affairs, is finding the truth of the situation they are concerned about. It is not about finding a course of action they can all agree on, or a compromise between different views, and certainly not a majority opinion. It is simply and bravely about the actual truth of the matter. And that truth might take us beyond what any of us might have previously thought. But when we see it, we know it's right and that we can commit to it.