Near the beginning of meeting one morning a Friend spoke, saying that despite continuing efforts, she was still not able to come to a clear understanding of God. It seemed this question could not go unanswered, so toward the end of the meeting I gathered my thoughts together and tried to say something, though I confess to feeling very awed by the task. Here is a summary of what was said, plus a few other things—perhaps more important things—that weren’t.
Quakers, unlike many others who believe in and worship God as something external to themselves, have always pointed inward and found God as an inner reality. This is not to say that Quakers have always agreed on how best to understand this inner reality. Frequently, we talk about God as a Light Within, or as an Inner Voice, or as a Spirit. Of these words, the one that comes most naturally to me is Spirit, and yet even Spirit—with its suggestion of disembodied, ghostlike beings—does not quite fill the need. When I try to understand what God means to me as an inner reality, I generally find it necessary to resort to images and metaphors. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, did the same thing when he told them, "You are God’s field, God’s building." "You are God’s temple." "God’s spirit dwells in you." I sometimes like to use the metaphor of a house, that is, my body as a house, my own consciousness as a special kind of space. I am not content to think of God as an occasional visitor who occupies the guestroom on Sunday. Instead, God becomes the spirit inhabiting this space.
What does it feel like, then, to discover God within this personal space? I can only answer this question against the backdrop of images of those deprived of such a space—the victims of a hurricane, the refugees in the wake of an earthquake, the stranded survivors of a tsunami, the homeless man on a park bench. I am blessed in a way that must not be taken for granted in having a door to open, a roof over my head, windows to let in the light, a space to call home—a space, that is, where I feel safe, protected, and grounded, a space where I can simply feel free to be who I am. This is a feeling not unlike that which one has upon entering a meetinghouse. What I’m saying is that such a feeling as this is an intangible something that is more than bricks and mortar. I may call it the spirit of the place, but the word "spirit" hardly does it justice.
In a sense, this feeling of well-being can be seen as a gift of grace, something we didn’t create, but have received over and above our own deserving.
Then, we move from the metaphor of the house, the meetinghouse, or the temple, and speak more directly of the inner space that is one’s own consciousness. I have a similar feeling in this case, a feeling of discovering something larger than myself. Words fail me as I try to say how best to speak of it. A still, small voice? An inner light? A spirit? A presence? None of these is quite right, but the reality is there nevertheless. It’s as though my body and my mind, my consciousness, and my unconscious self as well—all these together do not add up to all there is inside. They don’t account for the sense of being inwardly cared for, upheld, guided, sometimes even driven, corrected, grounded, and set at peace. If God is the name for whatever it is that makes these gifts available, then so be it. For me this is the way that the word God comes to refer to something manifestly real. I refer to a reality that will never be easily understood or put into words in theologies, creeds, or philosophies. And even though children may know instinctively what all of this means, it may take us a whole lifetime to learn how to find the right words to describe it.