Listening from the Light

One Sunday during gathered worship there was a visitor from another meeting who gave a message that was very repetitive and must have gone on for at least half an hour. I found myself at first becoming angry, but after ten minutes or so, I reminded myself that the reason I had come to meeting was to grow as a spiritual being. This man had something that he needed to express and it was up to me to offer him my loving attentiveness. As it turned out, not only did I learn something about love and forgiveness, but his message, which I confess could easily have been given in under five minutes, gave me a tremendous new insight into my own spiritual journey. I also came to a new realization of how difficult God’s job during meeting really is, forced to speak through such imperfect instruments as human beings.

On another occasion there was a message that I had more difficulty with. I was absolutely convinced that this one couldn’t possibly come from the Light. When the same person repeated the message in another meeting in almost the same words, I found myself venting my anger on my husband on the way home. But I was immensely disturbed by the dislike I was feeling for this person, sensing in it the seeds of hatred. I kept berating myself for lack of forgiveness, but there seemed nothing I could do except to stay away from this person at meeting. Finally, in desperation, I prayed for assistance in dealing with my feelings. As I did this, the realization came to me that the message as well as the messenger had been intended precisely for me. She’d pointed out a truth that I’d been resisting in my own understanding of spirituality. This realization freed up my emotions and I’ve since grown fond of her.

Because I frequently feel myself moved to speak at meeting, I’ve struggled intensely and suffered over the question of what it means to speak from the Light and how it is that I’m supposed to distinguish God’s voice from my own. I’ve heard this same concern expressed repeatedly by others in the meeting, as well as in Quaker literature. The other concern I’ve come across is that people speak too frequently and without discrimination. I assume that those who say this are not referring to their own messages and consider themselves to have better discrimination than these others who speak to excess. This suggests a competitiveness between the speaker and the listener over who is more discriminating, which leaves God, the supposed source of our messages, out of the picture altogether. My own solution has been to reject the idea that I am speaking from the Light in any way that suggests special access. It feels too much like it’s about me, and it leads too easily to spiritual egotism. I also feel with a growing intensity the danger of judging which messages do or do not come from the Light. In exercising this type of judgement, not only are we treating our neighbors who feel called to speak without love, but we are also betraying our lack of faith in the power and presence of God in our gathered worship. My faith requires of me to believe that all spoken messages have their source in a higher power.

I prefer a model of listening from the Light, which enables me to remain humble. In taking onto my own shoulders the job of finding meaning in the message, I have found that my consciousness has expanded. I have a growing impression that all messages do come from the Light and speak to me personally. Some messages have become very important in understanding my own journey and have helped me to grow. Other messages help me to better understand the spiritual condition of our meeting and the individuals who comprise it, so that I can better minister. Occasionally people speak of deeply personal issues or pains. I feel grateful for the reminder that people may be suffering, even when they appear to be well. I also take these messages on a model of prayers for aid, which have become sanctioned by the Light. I feel it my duty to ask what I personally can do to reach out to the speaker of a message, even if only by sending a card. The messages that appear the least important or are most annoying to me are a reminder of the biblical injunction that the least of us is the closest to the heart of God. I have come to believe that this is also true of the least of messages. They are a reminder of how important it is to keep loving and forgiving each other and to make space for people to say their piece even if they don’t have much to say.

When we doubt our own messages, we find ourselves waiting for visions and miracles. We want the burning bush to signal us that this really is a message, but this is not the way God usually works. There is a parable that I have come across about a man who prayed to Allah to make sure that his camel didn’t run away while he went about his errands. Allah agreed to help and the man went on his way, thinking that it was no longer necessary to trouble himself to tie his camel to a post. When he came back the camel was gone, and he got angry at Allah for having broken this promise. Allah responded by explaining that it was only possible to work through our actions, not despite us. So it also is in our meetings. God’s messages will not get through unless we are willing to take the risk of speaking.

I can only believe that by asking the speaker to question whether they truly are speaking from the Light, we lead them to question whatever fragile hold they have, in our very rationalistic age, on faith. By asking the listener to accept that there is a higher power at work in our meetings and that all messages come from this power, we will strengthen the love and trust that holds our meetings together. This faith does not have to be taken as permission for inconsiderateness on the part of the speaker. We can believe that a given message was divinely inspired, even as we remember that God is forced to speak through imperfect instruments. We can be grateful to the speaker for having passed on a message in all of its imperfections, even as we offer loving counsel for how the message might have been more tactfully given. We are all imperfect instruments and all, one would hope, striving to become better.

To those who still doubt the divine origin of all messages, I offer another parable. A spiritual student had great faith in his guru, while the other students thought that this student was naive and simpleminded and made fun of him. They threw a challenge in his direction: if you have so much faith in the guru, let’s see if you can jump off the top of this cliff. He landed at the bottom of the canyon, comfortably seated in the lotus position. But this still didn’t satisfy his detractors; they challenged him further that if he had such faith in the guru, he ought to be able to walk on water. This time the guru happened to be there as well. The faithful student remained unfazed; he climbed out of the boat, walked around on the surface of the lake, and then came back. As the guru watched, he thought to himself that if that fool, his student, was able to walk on water, then he, the teacher, must be able to do it so much better. He climbed out of the boat and immediately drowned. This story illustrates the power of faith even in the face of a false guru.

If we keep faith in our meetings that all messages—our own and those given by others—are spoken from the Light, then I believe that our faith will lead us into the Light even if some or all of the messages aren’t so inspired. And if we can keep our faith in the higher power, which is sometimes called God, to lead us and keep us safe, then I truly believe that this faith alone is enough to save us, even if there is no such being in the greater cosmos.
©2003 Anna Poplawska

Anna Poplawska

Anna Poplawska, a member of Northside Meeting in Chicago, Ill., is a yoga teacher, artist, and writer. Her creative works can be viewed at