A Friend remarked in meeting that he felt uncomfortable with the notion that, in the immortal words of John Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This Friend was obviously a man of action, and felt it was his duty to perform any work that would prove his commitment to God. He had kept his health strong, despite his age, with continuous physical activity like working to maintain the meeting building and grounds. I admire people who have tireless energy for fulfilling the needs of the community. Yet, to understand how our efforts may be put to best use requires an awareness of the particular circumstances of a specific situation so that our actions are not misguided. Impartial observation, patient contemplation, discussion with knowledgeable people, sensitivity, and openness of mind are necessary to be receptive to the best course of action. The attributes of awareness and skillful action are inextricably linked together. The apparent duality of these aspects is transcended by realizing the omnipresence of God.
Quakers have a long tradition of silent contemplation on the Divine Presence within all beings. When we take the time to listen to the leadings of our hearts, we can experience the undeniable truth of our innate wisdom, and use that revelation to inspire our compassionate actions.
John Milton’s poem, “On His Blindness,” from which that quote is taken, describes the dilemma Milton faced with his own blindness, and his conclusion. His worry is that his physical impairment will inhibit his service to God. He refers to the “one Talent which is death to hide,” from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30. In this parable, the servants are given measures of wealth, called Talents, in varying amounts according to their abilities. The servants who were given more than one Talent invested their wealth and earned back twice the principal; but the servants who had only one Talent hoarded it by burying it in the ground. Upon the master’s return, those who lent their wealth were rewarded and praised, but those who clung to it were stripped of their wealth and were cast out. The dictionary defines the word “talent” to mean natural ability or creative aptitude, in addition to being a measure of gold or silver. The parable can be interpreted to mean that, as servants of God, we are behooved to put our talents to use for the service of others, no matter how meager we consider our ability or aptitude. The performance of this selfless service will cause our abilities to bear fruit and enrich the world more than if we hide our talents, or fail to practice them. We often hear people remark what a sin it is that someone who was very gifted gave up their craft.
Milton first rationalizes that God wouldn’t expect more from him than he was physically capable of performing. But, after reflection he realizes that “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” So, it is our ability?to surrender our ego which pleases God most. At this point in the poem the rhyming scheme changes from abba to abcabc. The shift in?meter reflects his shift in reasoning. Initially he is concerned that he must labor to be of service;?then he resolves his dilemma by seeing the virtue of attending to God’s message. The attention required to hear God is indicated by Milton’s choice of words in the last line: “They also?serve who only stand and wait.” If we remain standing while waiting, it means that we are constantly ready and eager to hear any message. The meaning is totally different from sitting?and waiting, which implies comfort and boredom.
The Bible has numerous references to the advantages of waiting upon the Lord:
- Isaiah 40:30–31 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
- Psalms 37:34 Wait on the Lord, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee to inherit the land: when the wicked are cut off, thou shalt see it.
- Psalms 130:5 I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.
Before any procrastinators rejoice, be forewarned that laziness will not bring enlightenment. Milton continued to write prolifically after becoming blind, producing Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Milton’s blindness did not prevent him from creating beautiful poetry any more than Beethoven’s deafness prevented him from composing powerful symphonies. They were forced to work harder to release their creative energies, but they didn’t give up. It is hard work to retrain the mind to perceive the Divine Will instead of our habitual egocentric outlook, and requires persistent effort. Restless activity, without useful purpose, is to be avoided as much as laziness. It is following the middle path, devoting ourselves to selfless service, while at the same time maintaining awareness about our true intentions and the effects of our actions, which has the most benefit. Wisdom and compassionate action go hand in hand, making our lives joyful and helping to relieve the suffering of others.