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 behaviours, 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? 


  1. Thank you for this, Craig. I'm sometimes dismayed by Quaker universalism, because it seems to me to soak up the spirituality of the world around it like a sponge, and so offers little in the way of a prophetic critique of the ways of the world. You have avoided this by dipping the sponge deep into the sources of Quaker faith and practice. They are simple, 'quietist', yet deeply prophetic and countercultural. Hence the need, if we are to be attentive to them, to turn away from the chatter and clutter of the world, to cultivate an interior life, to find nourishment in community and wisdom in a moral tradition.

    I particularly appreciate your remark that the religious path is not a self-improvement project! It's good to hear this when the world around us speaks of life in terms of self-help and self-empowerment. It's so easy to internalise these values and to judge ourselves harshly when we fall short of them, or to refuse outright to acknowledge that we have fallen short of them at all. Rumi's observations about dependence and failure offer a valuable corrective to all this, and they are observations familiar to any attentive reader of the Gospels, too.

    I remember you quoting those lines of Rumi to me once before. I realise that in struggle and failure and defeat I have strayed far from the Inward Guide. I don't attend to it because I'm terrified of what it might ask me to do next. Sorrow has numbed me. Disciplined spiritual practice has never been my strong point, and when I am discouraged I fall prey easily to the 'noonday demon' of accidie/acedia, spiritual lethargy and despair, that tells me that this path is futile. I note here habits of inner resistance I need to work on. Or rather, that I need to stand still with them, that the Inward Light may work on them, revealing them fully to me and giving me the strength to move beyond them.


  2. Thank you so much for these reflections Alan, and for your honest wrestling with sorrow and faith. I am often conscious of how my own understandings have been nourished by our conversations, and how much I have learnt from you. In friendship, as always, Craig

  3. Thank you Craig for this meaningful message. It all speaks to me:
    - Deliberate choices - I see that my "normal self" is closed most of my life in its stories, so I keep an Inner Diary which helps me every day to return, I do something differently, might be as simple as feeling my feet on the floor or holding an imaginary ball ; it is important to do this as otherwise everything becomes just another idea and we have lots of ideas.
    - A supportive group. I value the Spiritual Companions group in Reading Meeting for continuity. I help run two Experiment with Light groups by skype and enjoy the « opening » they can provide. My wife and I also attend a Gurdjieff group with weekly meetings sharing our week's experience often with a common theme. Our current theme is « seeing ». Also once a week we take part in a Movements class to music where the quality of attention is energising.
    - Poems of Rumi I add two which are pertinent :

    The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
    Don't go back to sleep.
    You ask for what you really want.
    Don't go back to sleep.
    People are going back and forth across the door sill
    where the two worlds touch.
    The door is round and open.
    Don't go back to sleep.

    This human being is a guest-house.
    Every morning a new arrival.
    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
    Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
    Still, treat each guest favourably
    He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
    Be grateful for whatever comes
    Because each has been sent
    As a guest from beyond.

  4. May I be bold enough to offer this musical tribute to the Quaker Spirit:
    Quaker Dawn
    Thank you


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)