What I Learned from Rachel Hicks

One Friday morning during a Pendle Hill prayer class, Chris Ravndal introduced us to a prayer form he called "Creating Your Sanctuary." He asked each of us to imagine a comfortable, safe, and peaceful site—each one’s own personal sanctuary. We could, if we wished, invite into this space some other person, preferably not a close friend or relative. The spot I imagined was a location on our convent grounds in Oldenburg, Indiana, one with which I am familiar, having spent much time there during numerous retreats and visits. The place is a hilltop with benches facing out on a charming view of both the Sisters’ and the town’s cemeteries, of rolling farm land and distant hills.

In my imagination, I seated myself comfortably on a bench, and somewhat surprisingly, a small white cat appeared and jumped onto my lap. I could feel the sun’s warmth and smell recently cut clover.

My first thought had been to invite into this sanctuary a person such as Gandhi, Dorothy Day, one of the four U.S. women martyred in El Salvador, or even St. Francis, people whom I have long wanted to meet and certainly wished to emulate. I suddenly felt, however, that this site I found so lovely and peaceful—such a place of prayer—was not sufficiently austere for any of these particular individuals. Lurking in the back of my mind was the fear that they might remind me of my own lack of kinship with those who are poor and unjustly treated. I feared they might say to me: "What are you doing in this comfortable, safe, and peaceful place? Get out and do something!"

I was feeling a bit abashed when a small, gentle Quaker woman, clad in plain gray, walked into my sanctuary and joined me (and the cat) on the bench. She appeared as comfortable and peaceful as I felt in that spot, and I was delighted to have her join me. Her words to me were quite clear, simple, and altogether astonishing. She said, "Live up to the Light thou hast."

I knew the woman who had joined me was Rachel Hicks, a 19th-century Quaker minister from Long Island. The words she used (I learned later) were those that a 19th-century English Quaker woman, Caroline Fox, heard from the Inward Guide at a time when she was struggling with doubts about the content of her faith. I had read a segment from Rachel’s Memoir for Quakerism class, which undoubtedly was why it was she, and not Caroline, who had turned up in my sanctuary. Since Rachel had seen fit to join me there and had spoken to me such a challenging message, I resolved to learn more about this woman. I determined as well to invite her further into my sacred space to discuss the fuller meaning for my present and future life of the words "’Live up to the Light thou hast."

Rachel was a Hicksite Quaker minister from Long Island, New York. Born in 1789, she married Abraham Hicks, nephew of Elias Hicks, from whom the Hicksite variety of Quakers takes its name. She herself was the daughter of Gideon and Elizabeth Seaman; her mother’s family name was Dobson. In the Hicksite/Orthodox split that took place in New York Yearly Meeting in 1828, only a year after her husband’s death, she chose the path of his uncle; her own father, however, joined the ranks of the Orthodox. The division caused both Rachel and her father intense pain. She remained convinced however, of the truth of the Hicksite belief that "perfection" or salvation came through an individual’s faithful obedience to the Inner Light. In her memoir she relates that at an early age she neither understood nor accepted the doctrine of "atonement" that was at the core of Orthodox theology.

Obedience to the Inner Light was not that easy for her, however. In a family gathering for silent worship when she was 18, she heard quite clearly the inward command that she should become a traveling minister. Shyness and doubt concerning her ability to speak aloud in meeting caused her to deny this inward instruction for more than 20 years. During this time she was often both physically ill and emotionally depressed. Her husband and two of her five children died, the Hicksite/Orthodox split placed a strain on family and community relationships, and worst of all for her spirits, she felt that she was being deliberately disobedient to the inner voice she had heard at age 18. Within three years, however, after she first "rose and bore testimony to the Truth" at a First-day meeting in 1831, her meeting (Westbury) recognized her gift, and she began the traveling (and often quite strenuous) ministry to the various Hicksite yearly and monthly meetings. This included those in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Canada, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa. Such ministry continued, off and on, until her death at age 89.

She experienced deep sadness as she noted the decline of the Hicksite meetings in size and number. As one of the last of the Quietist ministers, who would often remain silent throughout a meeting they were visiting—to the chagrin of some regular members who were expecting some weighty message—she was dismayed by what she saw as a distressing tendency toward acceptance of a trained "hireling priesthood" and reliance on reason rather than on the Spirit as a guide in vocal ministry. And during the Civil War she suffered profound anguish. She regarded the conflict as an inevitable consequence of both the South’s stubborn insistence on maintaining and spreading the evil of slave holding and the North’s equally stubborn reliance on products produced by slave labor. Despite the hard times, however, including the deaths of her three remaining children and of the woman who had been her principal traveling companion, she experienced a deep, underlying peace in her conviction that she was being obedient to God’s voice as she had heard it. Shortly before her death she told a friend: "I have no anxiety about anything. . . . I feel that I am in the hands of my Heavenly Father; His arms are round about me and underneath, and I can truly say, ‘Not my will, but Thine, O Father, be done.’"

My first thought about the meaning in my life of the words Rachel spoke to me, "Live up to the Light thou hast," sprang from my knowledge that she had experienced such a clear call (to be a minister of God’s Word) and neglected to follow it for far too long. I reflected for some time, "What kind of leading have I received that I have been neglecting?" Was she trying to nudge my conscience about some serious personal task I had been refusing to perform? I thought of various times I had made great plans and resolutions to do something (such as write every day in my journal, design a plan for my religious congregation to take a corporate stance against some grave social evil, write articles about nonviolence and submit them to some journal for publication) and, somehow, never really had accomplished. Perhaps the words were pushing me once again in the direction of doing such things. I wasn’t at all sure, however, that this was the message intended.

What about that nagging guilt I experience from time to time when I recognize that I am a member of a privileged minority in the world—white, middle class, highly educated, a citizen of the remaining Superpower? I have heard many times that "guilt is not a productive emotion," but at least in Rachel’s life, guilt had been the motivating factor in leading her to faithfulness in following the Inward Guide, and subsequently to peace. Was that Spirit pushing me, by way of guilt, toward a ministry that I had decided was no longer for me—direct, active service with the poor and those living on the margins of society? I had come to Pendle Hill burned out after some 15 years in justice and peace ministry—the "indirect" but no less essential work of education and advocacy on behalf of victims of poverty, exploitation, and violence. Was I now being recalled to a more direct involvement? Again, I wasn’t sure.

I decided to explore different ways of hearing the words Rachel had spoken to me: "Live up to the Light thou hast." I found the published journal of Caroline Fox, Memories of Old Friends, and discovered that she had heard these words when she was feeling guilty about not being able to accept the belief that Christ was Savior and Redeemer. She heard them, not as words of blame, but as words of consolation, intended, it seemed, to assure Caroline that where she was in her journey of faith was precisely the right place for her to be. The sentence was followed by the phrase, "and more will be granted thee." In other words, she heard the command either as "Live up to the Light thou hast," or "Live up to the Light thou hast, and more will be granted thee."

Gradually, it became clearer to me that this was indeed the way that Rachel’s words spoke to my condition. They were never intended to send me on a guilt trip (however useful for my learning such a journey might be). They were spoken to remind me that in my search for direction, the only requirement is to answer "Yes" to the Light that I experience here and now as a 21st-century, United States, Catholic, Oldenburg, Indiana, Franciscan Sister.

One of my favorite book titles is We Drink from Our Own Wells, a book written by the father of Latin American liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez. In it Gutiérrez describes the spirituality of the poor of Latin America, a spirituality of their lived experience of the presence of God in history—their own history. The late Henri Nouwen, in a foreword to the English translation of the book, remarked that the title "expresses the core idea it describes." Nouwen continued: "To drink from your own well is to live your own life in the Spirit of Jesus as you have encountered him in your concrete historical reality." It occurred to me that drinking from the well of my own encounter with the Divine Spirit in my personal history was but another way of stating that I was living up to the Light I have.

I now believe that, had I gone beyond my feelings of embarrassment and invited into my sanctuary Gandhi, Dorothy Day, any one of the four U.S. women martyred in El Salvador, or even St. Francis, each would have told me much the same thing. The words would have been different, of course, arising from each one’s own 20th- or 13th-century reality, but they would have meant essentially the same thing. Rachel Hicks’s, Gandhi’s, Dorothy Day’s, Maura Clark’s, Ita Ford’s, Dorothy Kazel’s, Jean Donovan’s, and Francis’s unique experience of the Divine within each one’s personal history and culture prepared each for living up to the Light he or she received. In the same way, my own historical situation and experience prepare me in a unique way to receive that Light in my own daily life and to "live up to it." Yes, this reality does include being a member of a privileged minority in the world. It includes no less the great privilege I currently have of spending my sabbatical year at Pendle Hill and hanging out with Quakers, including not only those among the staff and students, but other newfound friends—such as Rachel Hicks—who encourage me to live up to the Light I have.

Sr. Rachel West

Sr. Rachel West is a member of the Order of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana. She spent the 2000-2001 year as a resident student at Pendle Hill. She wrote this essay for "Festival Week," the final week of the autumn term, and it evolved into a Spring 2001 Monday