It has always surprised me that there is such a thing as a Quaker Universalist Group. My understanding has been that our Quaker experience of spirituality is about going beyond all religions, going beyond the words that bind us to misunderstandings with other faiths.
Three questions are pertinent to me: First, do we find in our lives, as Quakers today, that we have a distinctive experience of the Light and the Truth? Second, if so, are we able to tell other people about it? And finally, are we really going beyond the confines of "religion" to experience the love, peace, and unity—in our meetings and our interactions in the world—that Fox and his contemporaries were so eager to share in their ministries?
Early Friends had such a strong spiritual life. Through their writings, the spoken word, and the way that they lived their lives, they communicated clearly that something very powerful was going on inside them. That powerful "something" transformed their lives, and they believed that it could change society too. In passing on their experience of it, they were actually willing to pay a high price—with their own lives.
That powerful "something" was the measure of Truth that was known in their hearts and therefore quite immediate. By waiting in the Light, early Friends did allow the Truth of their lives to emerge. As a result they were required to live in the light of that Truth. It called them to be honest, plain speaking, fair, and faithful to what they knew to be true, for Truth demanded integrity. It certainly wasn’t an easy path to tread, for the Truth can be very uncomfortable. By accepting and embracing it, however, they found that Truth freed them and made them whole. Also, their understanding of "authority"—a word that gives us many problems today—was quite simple. The source of the Truth that allowed them to be more fully themselves was within, as a capacity or gift. Access to it was direct. The authority was fully traceable, through "the life" to the Truth that all could know for themselves. It couldn’t be formed into a doctrine. It was an existential Truth, one that only the "I" can know by responding in the appropriate way, in one’s own experience.
Our experience of practical life is, of course, very different from that of early Friends. Our experience of an inner, spiritual life and power, however, might be very similar. It is a mystery to me what many contemporary Friends do experience in their spiritual lives. We find it so difficult to express and to show. Why is that? I might suggest that we struggle because in recent years we have tried to become all things to all people, losing a lot of our distinctive witness along the way. I have seen the evidence of it in my extensive travels amongst liberal European Friends.
Many Friends are wondering about our Quaker identity and talk of having a spiritual hunger. Many have become very uncomfortable with using Christian language—although there are those who would express the opposite view. Many are questioning the concept of discernment in the sense of "the will of God," and as a result there is a growing tendency to adopt secular ways of conducting Quaker business. Many are having problems in working through interpersonal conflicts that appear in meetings. We often find it hard to listen to each other. The tendency is to ignore what is happening. That could result in those involved feeling that we don’t care. Perhaps we also find it difficult to accept responsibility for one another. We love to quote Isaac Penington’s words about "praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand," but we are often quite unaware of his words that immediately follow ". . . if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting." There is another sense of unease too. Although we still meet together in silent worship, I know—because I have heard it said—that many Friends are questioning the use of that very word, "worship." Perhaps we have begun to give more emphasis to individualism and the concept that anything goes. Diversity appears to be the norm.
In the spring 2000 issue of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Quaker News, there was an interesting article about people coming away from a Quaker conference "comforted and inspired." That is good to know. At the same time it troubles me. The article is full of praise for helpful pointers for action, brilliant analyses of the difficult problems of the world we live in, and learning techniques for analyzing situations and conflicts and learning about social problems from knowledgeable people. It sounds wonderful—or is it? To me, it actually points out that something very fundamental is missing in our contemporary Quaker experience. In short, it leads me to wonder what our corporate experience is of Truth discovered in the Light. I didn’t read anything about that in the article and so wondered if the conference was in any way different from secular ones.
We seem to be reluctant to share our own immediate spiritual experiences with others. It is interesting to note that George Fox didn’t tell people what to believe, but he did indicate a way to find the measure of Light within that would show the Truth (both positive and negative) about their own lives. The Light can change you, rebuke you, heal you, and give you life. In short, as an individual it shows you what you need to see in order for you to be fully you, that is, to be the person that God intends you to be. It is particular to you and is immediate. Similarly, for a group of people such as in a Friends meeting, the measure of Light given to us shows us what we need to look at, develop, and perhaps make a public witness to. It is also a discipline, one which demands that we corporately test, in the Quaker community, whatever we feel to be "leadings."
Through the example of their own lives, Fox and other Friends showed people how to recognize the Light and how to trust it. While they felt they had to publish the Truth to the world, at the same time Fox was clear that the Truth was not only to be identified with the words he spoke, but also with the way he lived his life. Words could only be effective to the extent they found an echo in the experience of the hearers—a Truth or a witness in their hearts, that corresponded.
In sharing their experience of the Light and its power, early Friends used the language of the day, often referring to "Christ who was within, who could teach them." But they didn’t interpret Christ’s teaching, summarize it, or set it out clearly. I think that although they used the language and images people would understand, they were in fact pointing to an experience beyond that limited to any one particular person. They also discerned God as the source of the Light in which one can see oneself fully. They didn’t define God or limit that experience in any way, but rather opened it to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Truth was accessible to anyone, regardless of intellectual capacity or religious tendency. It was, and is, universal.
How does one gain access to this Light, which Fox called the pure Light of God? He showed us that it was possible by becoming still and relaxed, detaching oneself from thoughts and imaginings, and looking within to whatever might be bothering one about a particular aspect of one’s life so that it can be fully illuminated by the Light. When one waits in this Light, one can see the thoughts, temptations, and actions that have given rise to one’s unease. By submitting oneself to this scrutiny, in the Light, one begins to see new ways of behaving and being. One can begin to change. Fox often referred to this inner potential as "the seed."
The interesting thing is that when one comes to the measure of Truth in one’s heart, one can experience a completely new way of seeing other people and oneself. This mysterious thing in the depth of our being makes us aware of reality as we have never known it before. It gives us a new life, leading to a harmony of insight and action and to a falling away of our ego-centered attitudes. In following the Truth one is responding to the deeper concern within us for other people. We follow a leading to care, as we experience others caring for us. This response leads us into a fuller awareness of the Truth and more freedom from the ego. We can begin to see other people for real too, recognizing the potential in them, so that we are led to stop judging one another. We know that by continuing to judge, we can destroy each other and leave one another behind. This actually hinders our growth. As a result of discovering the Truth of his own life, by waiting in the Light, Fox spoke about his experience of a real unity, peace, joy, and love for others that comes in a life lived in the power of God. He felt he had been set free from the bondage of the ego-self towards a much wider and encompassing vision of the world around him.
The Truth of our lives cannot be described in words alone, but has to be fully lived so that others might see it and be led to the experience of it. Thanks to the work of Rex Ambler, a British Friend who has made the writings of Fox much more accessible to ordinary folk like me, I have caught a glimpse of this possibility myself, in a way that had escaped me before. I acknowledge that I have a long way to travel on the road towards what one might call enlightenment. But what I have discovered is that if one is faithful to the process of waiting in the Light and open to what it reveals, then one can be changed. One can begin to see others—and the world—in a new way, a way that is more loving and accommodating and looks beyond the limitations to which our egos bind us.
Quaker spirituality offers an experience beyond the individual self that lets us see the unity with one another. Normally, when we look at another person we see only an image. We see the person we are afraid of, want to attract, or want to manipulate. In other words, we see them in terms of our own needs. This means we don’t really see them. When we have experienced the Light and found the Truth in our own lives, we actually begin to see other people quite differently. Because we are free from our own egos, we can begin to see and experience that we are all of one body. Each part will have a different function from another, but we actually have a unity and a purpose.
In this way our meetings become real communities of faith, where we both help and challenge each other to be faithful to the Truth that is revealed to us. By waiting in the Light, surrendering to it, and being faithful to what it asks of us, we are led to testify our concern to the world: not as a pressure group, but as a community of faith that is unified, has tested its leadings, and is moved by compassion for the world’s suffering and a longing to see it healed. The discipline of waiting in the Light to find the Truth leads us from a concern with ourselves to one for the world, and back again, in a rhythm that is part of the growth that the Light makes possible. In my experience it is the Truth that leads us fully into the ability to love and be loved, thus opening us to life and unity with everything.
If we deny ourselves that discipline, our hope for the world begins to dim and we lose sight of the dynamic character of our own spirituality. Is that happening in the Quaker movement today? The signs are that we have become confused about our Quaker testimonies and witness to the world around us. Is that because we have inherited many of them rather than discovering them anew for ourselves, for our own age? Individuals may be able to work through testimonies in the various organizations they are associated with. But what about our witness as a corporate body?
What do we, as Quakers today, have to offer our fellow travelers in life? I hope that we can offer them access to the Light and Truth that lies within everyone. But to do that means we have to enter fully into the experience ourselves and then share it. I think we are very afraid of both those things. I have often heard Friends say they don’t want to find the Truth that is within. Why not? If we don’t want to find it, then have we, really and truly, sold the "pearl of great price" that early Friends told about, showed throughout their lives, and experienced to the full? And are we, in fact, denying ourselves the joyful experience of discovering Truth and being faithful to it, awakening us to love, peace, and unity in our relationships with all beings and the world?