Douglas Steere: The Mystical in the Everyday

A conviction has slowly grown upon me over the years that Douglas Steere is the most sustaining of 20th century Quaker devotional writers. When a new Friend, I was directed to Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly for the Quaker view of mysticism. Douglas Steere was recommended when I wanted to think about "speaking out of the silence," dimensions of prayer, or ecumenism, and I am embarrassed to say that it took me decades to discover his true range and depth.

Over his long lifetime of ministry, Douglas Steere’s writing was relentlessly grounded in daily life, but his view of the inward journey was deeply informed by his habit of visiting persons of authentic experience. Glenn Hinson’s fascinating biography (see below) describes how Douglas Steere early formed a habit of alertness to news of men and women who were well traveled in the life of the Spirit, whatever their creed or tradition. When he learned of people who seemed to have a tender soul and some fresh grasp of ultimate realities, he would figure out some way to visit them. It didn’t matter if the person was living quietly and unheralded in the Scandinavian countryside, or pursuing the life of a well-known scholar or spiritual director. Douglas Steere seems to have felt that his honest spiritual hunger and their experience of God was kinship enough to build a conversation upon.

This direct approach can also be seen in his encounter with the mystics of the past, throughout all branches of Christendom. He does not just quote these individuals in his writing, but seeks resonances, and he has striven to find out something of the personality behind the documents and histories. As a result, his writing is filled with stories and references about spiritual masters rarely heard of, as well as anecdotes and remarks from casual life, the mystics’ friends, and other salty details that are shared with the reader as in a racy and intimate conversation with a friend. The effect is refreshing and exciting, and the resulting sense of spiritual unity across cultures and centuries breathes quite a different air from that of a tolerant window-shopper in the Spirit Mart.

Douglas Steere tries to set his thinking in everyday settings, to make them concrete as well as spiritual. For example, in setting the stage for his discussion in Work and Contemplation, he analyzes his experience of clearing a grove of trees, noting how, as the time passed and the work continued beyond his first fresh energy, the physical task made greater and greater emotional and spiritual demands on him as it tried his resolve and patience. He suggests that the very real demands of work can be destructive if they are not framed in some meaning for the worker, and he roots the call for contemplation just in this natural desire for meaning: "It is because man is a contemplative being that he cannot bear a condition of meaninglessness, of irresponsibility, without its rotting him out. Because he cannot shake off this contemplative bent that queries, that integrates, that searches for the underlying significance of what he is involved in, work, as such, no matter how secure the post, how handsome the pay rate, how contracted the hours, is never enough."

Douglas Steere’s greatest theme, I believe, and one that modern Friends must revisit with fierce energy, is the existential one: the irreducible value and lonely experience of the individual, even the individual who belongs to a community. This theme is pursued in his writings about prayer, work, worship, listening, inward transformation, and even ecumenical dialogue.

He saw the ultimate source of right action, social justice, and peace of mind in the drama enacted in the heart, where the pain, joy, creation, drudgery, fear, and hope of your life and mine can be transformed by the listening, healing, shaping, endlessly loving, and energetic life of God. He is clear that many lives are not so transformed; many people, including many religious people, fail in the end. The inward journey, he wrote, is the hardest one; the Spirit’s birth pangs are pangs indeed. Yet Douglas Steere testified from his own experience that victory was possible, and he delighted to bring evidence from many quarters to bolster his own conviction. As he writes in On Beginning from Within, the key is to dare to long for, reach for, a great goal that is within anyone’s reach who longs for it:

The saint is . . . a man or woman who has become clear as to exactly what he wants of all there is in the world, and [for] whom a love at the heart of things has so satisfied that he gaily reduces his cargo to make for that port. . . . He is one who is doing what he wants to do, not . . . this minute, and the next minute, and the next minute, but what beneath the minutes and the days and the years he would want to do if all of them should vanish and leave him forever at it. . . . He is radical in the true sense of the word, for he has gone to the root of things, and found the root good.

Douglas Steere moves beyond such programmatic, sweeping, and possibly abstracted statements, because he was concerned to talk about ways to proceed—techniques for personal discipline and devotion. He ransacked the range of Christian practice, including Quaker experience, to help equip his readers to make progress. While writing for a general audience, he placed Quakerism’s testimonies alongside the other great traditions; when writing for Friends, he showed how the riches of Quakerism’s methods can be strengthened by dialogue with other traditions, without losing its essential character—a lesson that modern Friends, who are so accustomed to reach out to other faiths for nourishment, can always revisit with profit.

He saw that faithfulness was risky, and he had learned the mystics’ lesson that God in the end asks for all, that it is hardly enough to give one’s all to God. Yet the more generous one’s yielding, the more bountiful God’s response will be—in time; God is to be relied upon, but not predicted. He also was deeply convinced that inward transformation will result in outward change, including being drawn ever more strongly to service and self-giving. With divine love at the heart of things, our drawing close to God deepens compassionate, fearless action:

It is the Christian core that supplies the form of relationship with others as sons of a common father. . . . From this core comes to man the deep personal commitment to serve others as the revelation of God’s own nature served him, and to suffer and long for the redemption of others as they are suffered for and longed for in the very heart of God.

Douglas Steere rooted all his exploration of openness, daring, and experimentation in the ministry of Jesus—the teaching, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, as outward, historical acts and revelation, as well as inwardly experienced events over and over in the life of each seeker. He understood that since God is always and everywhere, so too are the historical dramas of life- and law-giving ever-present, ever-renewed, and each of us can take our place near the central events of the story.

Over the past year, I have read pretty much everything by Douglas Steere I could lay my hands on. There is not very much, really—the almost complete collection on my bookshelf is exactly six inches long, and it includes more than 20 items. He mostly wrote short but flavorful pieces.

My favorites include On Listening to Another, his Swarthmore Lecture on vocal ministry. This is a devotional and theological essay that has repaid a dozen readings over as many years with refreshment and insight. It has helped me as I have sought to learn how deeper and deeper listening can feed a meeting and its ministry in word and deed—and how listening in prayer, study, and action feeds the minister as well. Currently, it is in print as part of the collection of pieces called Gleanings. My second favorite is Work and Contemplation, which somebody needs to reprint soon. In this little book, he develops a theology of work as creative action fed by contemplation broadly defined. He draws on the mystics, of course, but what grabs one’s attention is the fruits of his own experience of work and drudgery, and his close attention to the voices and experience of workers in many walks of life. In this little book, he made me feel in a way beyond mere opinion how prayer and contemplation can permeate action, even the action of the daily grind, and that for many of us, and for many of our days, here is where our greatest battles are to be fought and our greatest light to be found and shared.

For further reading: Many pamphlets by Douglas Steere remain in print at Pendle Hill. Seek beyond these, though, and try out: Gleanings: Selected Writings (1986), published by The Upper Room—this includes "On Listening to Another"; Dimensions of Prayer (1962, reprinted 1997 by The Upper Room); and Work and Contemplation (1957), published by Harper & Brothers. An engaging biography is E.G. Hinson’s Love at the Heart of Things, published by Pendle Hill.

[Friends’] openness to [the Divine Listener’s] continual correction has [revealed] to many who followed a concern how brittle and fragile was the thread of their commitment when they undertook it, and how far the Divine Listener had used this concern to draw them on into the divine redemptive action and to cleanse and clarify them. . . . For our action like our words is being listened to not only by our fellows but by the Eternal One, and it is only as we feel that One’s scrutiny and respond to that One’s illumination in what we do that we become a part of the redemptive circle that longs to draw not only humanity but all creation into its healing power.
—Douglas Steere