No one has expressed the meaning of convincement better than St. Paul in his letter to the Romans:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor principalities, neither present, nor future, nor powers, neither height, nor depth, nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Few of us aspire to being convinced in quite the manner Paul was: by being thrown from his horse and temporarily blinded. But we do aspire to Paul’s strength of convincement.
I am a convinced Quaker, but a lifelong Christian, baptized in the earliest weeks of my life, with my parents and godparents proclaiming a faith for me that I could neither express nor understand as an infant. But I became a convinced Christian long before I became a convinced Quaker.
Convincement consists, I believe, of equal parts of intellect and emotion. Authentic Quaker spirituality maintains that balance. As a Friend, I do not affirm my faith aloud every week through the words of the Nicene Creed as many other Christians do. But I do believe more than what I merely feel, and I trust what I believe: that God is not simply an inner presence, but the Creator of all that is, and whose Son was sent to live and die for us, to save us from ourselves, and to reveal what God-likeness is. The better I grasp who God is, the better I am able to find God in myself and serve God in others.
I cherish all that I learned about God in the years before I became a Quaker, and I bring it all with me, unalloyed and undiminished. I believe that I have left nothing behind. A Friend from my meeting recently characterized most of us as "renegades" from other churches and denominations. In this sense I am a convinced Quaker but not a convert. To "convert" means literally to turn around, and I haven’t. I have been on this path all my life. Rather, I have found my home at path’s end.
It is a home marked by simplicity. Quakerism is easier to define by what it is not than by what it is. Quakers have no church, no clergy, no sacraments, no sermons, no liturgy, no art or statuary. Instead, we have the silence, and we have one another. We have hymns, but prefer silence. We honor the creed, but do not make it a test of our loyalty. The Bible plays a substantial part in my life, but I don’t carry the Bible around with me as a talisman. Quakers gather together to pray, but nobody knows the words that the others are using.
So long as we Quakers don’t identify "the God within" as ourselves, we are on safe ground, for religion is full of temptations. When Moses left the Israelites in the desert, he discovered on his return that they were worshiping a golden calf. Ever since, Jews and Christians have had to fight the temptation to attach their faith to something more palpable than their invisible God. This temptation, idolatry, is forbidden by the Second Commandment.
The genius of Quakerism is that simplicity removes many things that we might be inclined to substitute for God: sacraments, liturgy, the creed, hymns, sermons, sacred art, even proselytism. As Robert Barclay noted at the time of the Reformation, many Christians were clinging more to the words in the Bible than to the Word of God, which is Jesus. As Friends of the Truth, we are spared those distractions.
Many of us would describe our spiritual journeys as searching. I prefer to believe that we seek instead an acceptance of being "found." In poet Francis Thompson’s vision, we are pursued all our lives by the hound of heaven, but we attempt to elude our Creator by distraction and indifference. "Be still," the psalmist demands. "Be still and know that I am God." It is in the stillness that God speaks to us.
Simplicity and Silence
Simplicity makes sense only when there is something to simplify. Children aren’t drawn to simplicity, but rather to piling up treasures of knowledge and experience (not to mention adventure and mischief). We "come of age" when we absorb enough to develop distinct personalities and abilities. Then, as adults, we start to sort out our treasures, deciding which are most desirable, discarding or setting aside other goods from our attic of experience, and establishing priorities. As one wise feminist once cautioned her ambitious sisters: "Yes, you can have it all, ladies, but not all at the same time."
My eldest daughter, now an adult, has been plagued since childhood by attention deficit disorder—a condition marked by difficulty in sorting things out and attending to one thing while disregarding others. For the victim of this syndrome, everything demands equal attention. Those who are hard of hearing and require hearing aids encounter a similar problem. When I pay attention to just one voice, I automatically shut out competing noises—the tick of a nearby clock and the sound of traffic outside. But a hearing aid gives all sounds equal weight.
We are inclined to think of simplicity as making do with less, but it does not require us to live Spartan lives. One can live simply, yet comfortably. Nor is there anything uniquely spiritual about simplicity. Once, when I was interviewed about a book I had written on the subject, I was asked to name a celebrity who leads a simple life. I answered: "Donald Trump." Why? Because he lives simply for business: to make deals.
You can say something similar about other successful people. They decide what really engages them, then discard competing interests. You will remember when Michael Jordan attempted to be both a successful basketball and baseball player. He failed at the latter and returned full-time to what he did best. And no one thought any the less of him for simplifying his life.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that each of us has the right to pursue happiness. It does not pretend to tell us what happiness consists of, so we all compose our own definitions over a lifetime. I believe that only God, who owns the patent and holds the blueprint to all creatures, knows how to make us happy. God alone knows what makes us tick. St. Augustine said that human hearts will be restless until they rest in God.
When I was researching my book, Spiritual Simplicity, I came across a study by a social scientist whose specialty is happiness. What he confirmed is that happiness is not a consumer good—not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Rather, happiness lies in its pursuit, in the process of purposeful living. Simplicity helps us be happy because it cuts the clutter from our hearts and minds and allows us to concentrate more.
Silence is a radical kind of simplifying. In the silence we are aware of all the competitors for our attention, and we learn to discard the nonessentials. I am drawn to our practice of sharing the silence with one another. All of us are solitary animals, unable to communicate our pain and pleasure. But we show our solidarity in silence as children of the same God. That makes us Friends.
I am an only child. At home I grew up only in the company of my mother and father, so "family" was not a big thing in my experience. But friendship was—and is—and I do not take friends for granted. Quakerism attracts me not least because it allows me to call myself a Friend and to count on other Friends.
Originally, Quakers were known as Friends of the Truth, but we are also Friends to one another. I have felt that bond in meetings in the United States and in England.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to friendship as "a sheltering tree." That’s how I like to think of it. I am grateful to make my family among Quakers, who helped me along my journey. I feel blessed to be able to call them Friends.
© 2003 David Yount