Most Quakers are familiar with George Fox’s spiritual epiphany. He was alone and in desperate need of spiritual nurturance. It was then that he heard the voice famously quoted in his Journal, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." It isn’t clear to me whether George Fox thought he was hearing the voice of Jesus himself, the Holy Spirit, God, or an angel. However, he was clear in his understanding that this was a voice from the Divine—a voice whose message ultimately led to the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, our chosen place of worship each First Day.
In contemporary times those who hear voices or have visions of a divine nature are less likely to be viewed as religious visionaries and more likely to be seen as irrational, religious zealots or slightly off—crazy, disturbed, suffering from stress-induced hallucinations. This modern, rationalist view even extends backwards in time. A headline on a young adult Friends newsletter once asked somewhat irreverently, "Was George Fox a religious visionary or was he just crazy?"
This skeptical and critical attitude towards direct experiences of the Divine has driven the reporting of such events underground. Sane, rational, liberal Quakers who experience a vision will be quite circumspect in telling others. They will wait for the right moment or the right supportive environment to unburden themselves. Even those who would admit to a gathered meeting and a sense of divine presence on such occasions blanch at the idea of an in-person appearance from the Divine. This is remarkable for a religion founded on the idea of continuing revelation through direct spiritual experience. In the modern liberal Quaker view such experiences are sanitized and intellectualized in our words and thoughts, not the raw stuff of visions.
A few years ago, New Haven Meeting held a seeker session entitled "Quakers and Jesus." This session was led by Jonathan Vogel-Borne, New England Yearly Meeting’s field secretary, and a believer in the divinity of Jesus. None of us knew exactly what to expect. Many were concerned that the more Christo-centric and the more universalist among us would lock theological horns. While this might lead to a lively discussion, it also had the potential for conflict and the reopening of old Quaker wounds.
This is far from what happened. Jonathan asked us each to articulate our own individual understanding of Jesus and where he fit in our lives. Jonathan indicated that he could tell us his own beliefs and his own stories of direct contact with the Divine and of his personal angel (a story I now long to hear), but that he preferred not to share these. After all, this was New Haven Meeting’s session, not Jonathan’s.
The sharing started on a level of somewhat abstract personal theology, but then a miraculous thing happened. Individuals began sharing their direct experience of the Divine and, for some, of Jesus. In this worship sharing, 4 out of 12 to 15 people shared anecdotes about direct visual or auditory contact with the Divine. Imagine, 25 to 30 percent of otherwise liberal, largely universalist Quakers having direct spiritual experiences they felt compelled to relate.
I won’t tell the stories that the others told. They are, after all, their stories, not mine. However, I want to tell my own story for a few reasons. I think it’s an important story to tell, and telling it in the protected environment of the seeker session has given me the courage to tell it to a broader audience. I also hope that it will inspire those who have not been fortunate enough to have this experience, and that it will give validation and encouragement to those who have had this experience but are reluctant to talk about it. I believe that such stories are powerful and important and that they deserve to be told time and again. The thanks I received for telling this story the few times that I’ve told it is proof enough that Friends want to hear.
In mid-December 2000 my wife, Marcia, was stricken with a sudden and ultimately fatal illness. Early in the morning after she was admitted to the hospital, I felt a strong need to sit in silent worship with others to pray for her recovery. I called a couple from meeting who lived nearby and asked if they would come to my house to worship with our children and me. They had another obligation that morning, but were able to work out that one could come and in the meantime they called another couple from meeting who also came. We sat in our living room in prayerful silent worship for Marcia’s recovery.
At some point in this meeting I saw in my mind’s eye a clear vision of Jesus. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew intuitively and completely that this is who it was. It wasn’t a question I even had to ask. He was holding Marcia unconscious in his arms. They were on a road and Jesus was facing out from the road towards me. In one direction, on Jesus’ left, was a well-lit, well-paved, golden-hued brick road that led gently upwards toward a white light. I knew that heaven was at the end of this road and that Marcia’s father and sister, Aunt Ruth, and a few other deceased friends and family were waiting there for her. In the other direction the road was dark, craggy, and foreboding. It was clearly a difficult trail and just as clearly it was the road back to this life. I prayed that Jesus would begin to carry Marcia on the road back to this life, but he just stood there. The remarkable thing was that as he stood there I felt a sense of infinite peace and patience. This wasn’t the kind of patience that I practice, which is, "Take your time while I mentally tap my foot." Nor was it the peace I might feel at a well-gathered meeting or in deep meditation. Rather, it was a patience unbound by any sense of time and a peace of bountiful comfort. I kept trying to imagine Christ moving in the direction I wanted for Marcia back up the craggy path, but he did not move.
This vision was briefly replaced by a second vision where I saw a small child much like the child in Edward Hicks’s peaceable kingdom paintings leading Marcia by the hand along the path to heaven. She was obviously at peace and willingly walking with the child. The vision then went back to Christ holding Marcia. It was a long and enduring vision and one that is still etched in my visual memory.
I didn’t share this vision with anyone during this worship. I was moved by it and felt that it was incredibly important, but I was puzzled by what it meant. I kept revisiting it, trying to make it make sense. In the next day or so I shared this vision with my children and Marcia’s sister, but mostly as a curiosity and perhaps in hope that they could help me puzzle it out. We thought perhaps it meant that Christ was holding Marcia until she could manage to come back to us on her own. I later shared it with Thayer Quoss, then a chaplain at the hospital and a member of New Haven Meeting. She suggested that I could have witnessed a direct intercession, and I found some solace in that possibility.
After a few more days Marcia’s condition worsened and I asked for a clearness committee to help our children, Marcia’s sister, and me to find clarity in making a decision about stopping Marcia’s life support. Marcia’s sister was especially reluctant to make this decision without a clear sign that hope was gone. The children and I were more at ease with it. In the course of this meeting I shared my vision and, after some time, Marcia’s sister shared that this very vision moved her to greater acceptance of Marcia’s fate because she now knew that she would be safe in the arms of Christ. We had reached the consensus we needed as a family to make a decision to remove Marcia’s life support when it became appropriate. It was the gift of this vision that got us there.
That same night we returned to the hospital to discover that Marcia’s condition had worsened, and that it was indeed time to let her go. Marcia died with dignity shortly after the life support was removed, surrounded by the love of her family and her God expressed through us.
As I’ve reflected on this vision I’ve come to believe that the real message showed Christ’s willingness to patiently hold Marcia between this life and the next until those she loved most were ready to let her go. The vision wasn’t just for me; it gave me the story that needed to be told for her family to come together in our love for Marcia. The vision also created a major shift in my understanding of the Divine. In the space of my short life as a Quaker I’ve moved from "who cares about Christ" to "Christ was a great teacher" and now to a certitude of "Christ the Divine." All this with not one person telling me I had to do this to be "saved." Where I once was a universalist, I am now clearly a Christian universalist. Like John Woolman I don’t believe that Christ is the only way God has for all God’s children, but I do know that Christ is the way for me. I’ve also developed a deep respect for other people’s stories of their encounters with the Divine. I long to hear them, and I will continue to tell my own in hopes that we can illuminate one another’s spiritual journeys.