Discerning the Divine

The Quaker’s method is based on belief in a God-centered spiritual universe, the inner truth and meaning of which is in some degree accessible to humankind.
—Howard Brinton,
Guide to Quaker Practice

As a teenager I was preoccupied with the big questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? What happens when I die? How should I live my life? Why would a loving God stand by and let holocausts happen or allow children to suffer? What is God? I read anything I could in search of the answers. While many of my friends were experimenting with substances, I was exploring various religions and spiritual writings from Catholicism to Taoism. I also delved into emerging areas of science that were exploring consciousness and quantum physics. I distilled from my searching that we are all connected on some mysterious level; that we can never be destroyed, only changed; that there is a synthesis beyond duality of good and bad; that there is a guiding, intelligent life-force whose basic nature is experienced as love by those who have touched near-death; and that all the answers are within because contained within every part is the pattern of the whole (just as DNA contains the templates for all parts of the body). And yet, I am left with another nagging question: How do I know when God is talking to me?

My search for this answer led me for a while to spiritualists, who seek to talk to dead people for guidance, and who believe that different spirits are channeled through living humans. One day while sitting in quiet with a group of spiritualists, I heard a voice in my head say, "Why do you talk to dead people when you could be talking to me?" I understood "me" to be the God within. It occurred to me that anyone can be dead—from scoundrels to saints. Death is an equal opportunity employer. If these dead people were once horrible human beings, then why would I listen to them? Just because they’re dead? Even if the view were better from the other side, what are their credentials? Instead of using intermediaries such as dead people, saints, or animal guides, wouldn’t it be better to talk to God directly? After all, contained within every part is the pattern of the whole. So, God should be within, right?

Some time later I found a home among Quakers. However, I still find communicating with God elusive. The best I have been able to grasp is that to know God I need to practice listening, I must strive to comprehend God’s language within, I must utilize discernment, and I must be aware of the pitfalls along the way. I know that my ego can masquerade as something holy; it can cloak my hopes and fears, pretending they are the Inner Voice. The fear of being misled keeps me vigilant and searching for a better way to identify, translate, and discern the language of the Divine.

I must confess that I am in awe of Quakers who seemed to have translated and discerned spiritual messages easily. George Fox, John Woolman, Howard Brinton, Thomas Kelly, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Fry, and Rachel Hicks all appeared to comprehend the Divine’s language. In Friends for 300 Years, Howard Brinton remarked that, "In Quaker journals we frequently read a sense of burden and uneasiness which often precedes speaking." I am amazed to think of these as signs of Divine leadings. During Quaker meeting I interpret these clues as my own fears of public speaking, which leads me to the thought that there has got to be more to this process than meets the eye. Surely, if these were the only signs of leadings, then we would all know when we were being beckoned. I think it’s easy to be misled.

One of my favorite misguided, but devoted, Quakers of the past is James Nayler. If it were not for being misled by his admirers, he would have been on equal footing with George Fox and William Penn. James Nayler was encouraged by his followers to ride a mule into Bristol, England, as a symbolic act signifying Christ’s immediate presence. To the local officials it appeared that Nayler and his followers were proclaiming that he was Christ. He was arrested and convicted of blasphemy, tortured, and sentenced to three years in jail. Several years later he came to his senses and realigned himself with the Quaker movement. Oddly, I find some comfort in James Nayler’s illustration of how vulnerable and human we all can be as we search for spiritual guidance.

For me, the first step in the process of listening to the Divine is preparation of the mind or soul to listen to whatever may emerge from its depths or beyond. As with many forms of meditating I find that it is important to clear the mind of clutter, to relax, and to let go of concerns. As George Fox wrote in his Journal, "Be still and cool in thy mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God." Many years later, Rufus Jones wrote in George Fox, Seeker and Friend that, "The worshiper, if he is to enter into this great attainment, must cease his occupation with external affairs, his thoughts of house and farm and business, and center down into those deeper levels of his being where he can feel the circulation of spiritual currents."

I have discovered that it is essential to relax the analytical mind while preparing to listen. In doing so, I can allow thoughts to flow. During the process I make mental notes of thoughts, visions, and sensations while reserving judgement. The mental chatter is even easier to quiet if I have made an effort to live my daily life with certain attitudes. I find that if I strive to hold onto the Quaker values of simplicity, honesty, respect, peace, integrity, and recognizing that of God in everyone, it is easier to settle my mind and achieve peace. I also recognize that life is an experiment and that I am human. Self-forgiveness is essential for letting go, learning, moving on, and it assists the process of settling down. Practicing quieting down on a routine basis seems to facilitate the process. Sometimes I focus on a word such as "relax" or "peace" to remind me which direction we are taking; otherwise, my mind has a way of wandering. I have to admit that this process can at times produce nothing more than a relaxed feeling or sleep—and perhaps that is what I need. If I become rested, it gives me the energy to focus on listening to God again.

I find that the Divine has quite a repertoire of languages, varying to suit particular individuals, cultures, or time periods. I notice that the Divine may use symbols, feelings, words, visions, sensations, smells, sounds, or any combination of these forms. In a story by Tom Brown Jr., "Grandfather," I was struck by the following passage, which illustrates a Native American experience of the Divine and summarizes what I have long suspected about divine language:

He [Grandfather] would eventually begin to understand their silent language conveyed to him through the-spirit-that-moves-through-all-things. The language, he quickly learned, was not in the tongues of man, but through the language of the heart. These communications would come to him through waking visions, dreams, signs, symbols, and feelings. At first these things are difficult to understand, but with practice they become as easy as any spoken language.

I suspect early Quakers would agree with this grandfather’s observations. An anonymous Friend wrote in London Yearly Meeting’s Christian Faith and Practice (1960) that God could speak as an earth-quake, whirlwind, small voice, faint whisper, or could "make the heart beat and body tremble." Any of these signs could be the voice of God calling us to pay attention.

Some sense the Divine speaking through gut feelings, bad feelings, good feelings, and inklings. Howard Brinton, observing that Quakers tend to receive kinesthetic messages, wrote, "A speaker seldom remarks ‘I think’ but generally, ‘I feel.’" A persistent sense of restlessness can be God trying to say something. For others, the Divine speaks through symbolic or literal pictures or visions. The Bible is full of accounts of those who had visions of ghosts, hosts, angels, devils, or received premonitions of things to come. I have heard of those who have smelled flowers, bread baking, a loved one’s perfume, or foul odors and taken these as omens. There are those who hear angelic music, disembodied voices, and spoken messages from God. Except for that one experience with the spiritualist, I do not hear voices. I seem to be a kinesthetic and visual receiver of messages. Similar to Howard Brinton’s observations, I lean toward feeling if things are right or wrong. Sometimes feelings will evolve into visions or directional hunches. As years pass, I tend to rely more on hunches. I find that life is full of half-truths, missing pieces, questions that lead to more questions, and omissions. Often information is missing and time is limited to make a decision. I must go on my hunches about the best way to proceed. I operate similarly during Quaker meeting. When a message is offered, I perceive how it feels in order to assess its appropriateness for me.

Another name for this feeling is intuition. The catch in a spiritual message is that it often takes intuition to discern intuition. This leads me to the topic of discernment. No matter how individuals receive messages, there must be a sifting process. The pitfall in any of these processes is the ego. I think of the ego as both a defense mechanism and a mental function that regulates our sense of self. Contrary to what some spiritual traditions hold, I do not believe the ego should be destroyed in order to transcend into higher spiritual realms; rather, I believe the ego is an important part of our psychological immune system. It is important to recognize the ego’s tendency to interpret things in self-serving and self-preserving ways. I know the ego can mislead and cloak desires as divine guidance. All messages must be evaluated to discern ego chatter from true spiritual messages.

I find Quaker writings to be most helpful in clarifying the discernment process and keeping the ego in check. One Quaker discernment technique has to do with the persistence of the message, as described by N. Jean Toomer and quoted in New England Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice: "I press [the thought] down and try to forget it. If time passes and it does not take hold of me with increasing strength, I conclude that it is not to be spoken at this time. If, on the other hand, it will not be downed, if it rebounds and insists and will not leave me alone, I give it expression."

A while back I saved a quotation from an article in New Realities magazine that focused on the difference between impulse and intuitive messages. The author, Marcia Yudkin, wrote that "impulse makes you feel you must act immediately or you’ll miss an opportunity, but if it’s intuition, you can wait and the idea will keep coming back. Impulse, which is not your deepest self speaking, appears as a strong burst of energy that quickly dies away, whereas intuition will stick around and nag." I believe that a haunting dream, nagging thought, or persistent image constitutes a spiritual prompting. The key is the persistent nagging, which seems to be a sign that the Divine is calling.

A sense of peace is another Quaker test of right guidance; as N. Jean Toomer wrote, "Having spoken, I feel at peace once again, warmed and made glowing by the passage of a living current through me." In a similar fashion Howard Brinton wrote, "The presence of inner peace was the main Quaker test of right guidance." Regardless of the outcome of a deed, if there was a sense of inner peace, then one could be assured of having done the right thing. In the afterglow of doing it, one could also know that the prompting was divine in nature. This discernment process has limitations in that one must wait until after taking an action to learn if it was a true prompting. I prefer the heads-up approach accompanied by flashing lights, so I lean more on intuition and nagging signs to discern messages in the present. Inner peace in the aftermath is only a nice bonus.

Among contemporary Quakers I have heard of another test for divine guidance, sometimes referred to as synchronicity. The psychiatrist Carl Jung used this term to describe the phenomenon of meaningful coincidences. Simply stated, synchronicity is when a series of eerie things happen. For example, let’s say I dream of a hawk soaring over a field. The dream nags at me. The next day while I’m working in the backyard, a hawk is sitting on a branch. I pick up a magazine at the checkout line in the grocery store and spontaneously turn to an article on hawks. In the parking lot I bump into Mr. Hawkens. The analytical mind might say this all falls within the realm of probability. However, when these things keep happening I am left with a clear impression that I should be paying attention to something. This feeling doesn’t go away; rather, it persists. Once again I am left to decipher its meaning by using intuition.

At this point I may use my analytical mind and intuition to try to decipher a meaning. I may search in Native American literature, biblical references, or other resources to discern the meaning of a hawk. I may talk to friends and see what they think. I may explore how intuitively a hawk feels to me. Is it a positive or negative feeling? Are we talking about predators or soaring spirits? What does the image elicit? What feelings or impressions does it bring forth? After exploring all of the possible solutions, I decide which one feels right. Sometimes the process takes several hours, or weeks, and there are times when this process may take years to accomplish. Occasionally, I never do find an answer and hope for other clues to be revealed.

Some spiritual traditions may want to omit the role of the analytical mind, but I believe it is vital to the discernment process, although using it is not an easy task. I agree with Howard Brinton’s comment, "There is no real reason why the intellectual and the spiritual should not develop together and reinforce each other. Human reason and the Spirit, which is more than human, are both essential, but the balance is not easy to maintain." It is not easy because of the ways the rational mind and intuition operate. The rational mind strings ideas and thoughts together in a linear fashion like beads on a string. It dissects and distills sensory input. It is methodical and calculating. Intuition, in contrast, darts from place to place grasping symbols, sights, images, and feelings and brings them back in pieces or in wholes. Intuition can fill in the shortcomings of logic. Logic can string together intuition so ideas can be coherently communicated, or logic can pursue directions that can facilitate intuition. I believe that the spiritual journey involving the mind and intuition is one of honoring the strengths and limitations of each process.

I inadvertently stumbled upon another form of discernment. I call it, I-know-that-I-know. A case in point is a story my mother often likes to recount about my near-drowning episode. When I was about six years old, I was swimming with my mother, older brother, cousins, and aunt at Rehoboth Beach, which is notorious for its swift undertow that sweeps victims off their feet and drags them far into the ocean. I was playing in the water when the undertow knocked me down. I remember my head bobbing above water while I calmly watched my family move into the distance. Since I did not have time to be scared, the panicked looks on their faces were perplexing. There was a mad dash to my rescue. Just as I was about to drown, I was grabbed. Meanwhile, several miles away, my father was at a convention. Without any prior knowledge, he dreamed that the ocean had swept me away. He just knew that something was wrong. Early the next day he called to have his knowing confirmed. He was relieved to find out that I was OK.

I often hear people say I just knew it was the right thing to do or I just knew what was going to happen. If asked, "How did you know?" they reply, "I just knew." I have had a few of these knowing experiences. When they happen, it is accompanied by a strong sense of confidence. I suspect that the early Quakers had many of these knowing experiences. Why else would they risk life and limb to cross the ocean and spread their understanding of God?

Overall, my experience of God is more mundane and subdued. I check my hunches using Quaker processes, one of the more common of which is the clearness committee, which is assembled to help an individual reach clarity in regard to a leading. This is a process where an individual can check one’s promptings with the queries and leadings of committee members. Howard Brinton wrote that the final outcome of such a committee does not always rest with the group: "If the individual feels clearly and strongly that the group is wrong, he may be obligated to ignore its judgement." The committee process does not remove responsibility from each individual to discern the difference between the Divine and ego promptings.

Clearness committees are often used for weighty matters such as marriage, career moves, ministerial leadings, and membership. It is a great way to discern a leading especially for significant life transitions. I use a more informal variation of the clearness process to discern hunches. Many times I am waiting on the Divine to help me with career moves, relationship decisions, and life direction issues. I utilize respected friends and religious writings as part of my discernment process. I continue checking my intuition by being alert to synchronicity, persistent nagging, and gut feelings. I wait to see if a leading has additional promptings and if they grow in strength. If I am on the right course, I know that a sense of peace will be my confirmation.

I suspect my search for the Divine will be a lifelong journey. I am still dabbling and experimenting. I learn from both my successes and mistakes. I have followed signs I thought were leadings and found myself down the wrong path. At times I suspect even those mistakes could be leadings. If life is truly an evolving process, then mistakes are just as valuable as successes. On the other hand, since I am not fond of mishaps, I am constantly looking for better ways to listen and discern messages. I read books on the topics of mysticism and spirituality. I talk to people I suspect may know something about discernment and the language of God. I recognize that I am a lifelong pupil in the process. I fall short when it comes to making time to meditate or practice listening; daily life can be very distracting. And yet, the same life that distracts me also leads me to questions that eventually require turning inward for answers. I am haunted by questions that lead back to discerning the language of the Divine.

© 2003 Karen Reynolds

Karen Reynolds

Karen Reynolds is a member of Storrs (Conn.) Meeting.