I’ve just arrived at the old stone house next to Amish fields where I spend the summers writing. One of my first priorities is to string wires up the stairs to connect my computer to the phone line so I can get my e-mail. But a quiet, inner voice tells me to wait. As I notice my impatience, I become aware of how my daily e-mail correspondence—which usually involves planning many activities—often seems more important than daily time for listening to God. It is thus with a humbled awareness of my own shortcomings that I write this; it is my sense that the most important thing to which Friends are called today is to enter, deeply and daily, into worship and prayer.
I believe that Friends continue to be called to important outward works of service and witness, to prophetically challenge the way things are, and to model more loving and sacramental ways of living with one another and this planet. Individually and in groups, Friends have long sensed and acted upon various urgent callings, including care of the Earth, peace witness, social justice, healing, reconciliation, and education. We look back to many moments in Quaker history when our work in these and other areas helped lead the way for significant social change. Many of us long for our work today to have equal or greater power. It can. And it will, when it is very deeply rooted in God’s love and power.
In May I bought three small basil plants. Two were planted in the garden and one was left in its small pot. Four weeks later, the two plants whose roots had been free to spread in the ground and branch out had become full. The seedling left in the pot was equally tall, but it was merely a single weak stalk because its roots were cramped in narrow confines. Our worship practice of one mere hour a week is like that small plastic pot; it severely limits the breadth and power of the work we so genuinely offer to those around us and the world. As a Religious Society, we are called to become more like an oak tree than a basil plant. An oak tree is able to reach a great and powerful height and breadth not only because it spreads its roots out widely, but because it first sends a long taproot straight down deep into the earth. The taproot reaches toward the water table and can bring large quantities of water into the mighty tree even in times of drought. To achieve the powerful outward influence that I believe Friends are called to have, we must be deeply rooted in the living waters of our Divine Source.
Our existence in God must become the prime reality of our lives. We are called to seek and meet God even more fully, intimately, and immediately than early Friends did. Some of us are uncomfortable with the word "God" because of the limited anthropocentric images we have inherited. We must not be confined by past conceptions of the Divine, but go beyond our resistance to seek and find our intimate connection with the pulsing matrix of all life. However we think of the Mystery in which we have our Being, we are called to meet it more and more directly, in the core of our body, mind, and consciousness. Only in so doing will we be able to live out the fullness for which we were born; only in so doing will we be able to make the broad, strong contribution to the world that we are called to make in our time. How can we grow wider, deeper roots of awareness into our Source? In part, we can do it by giving more time and attention each day to our relationship with the Divine. We do this through prayer, devotional reading, worshiping alone or with others, meditating, taking silent walks in nature, and by intentionally turning our hearts and minds to God again and again during the activities of our day. In addition, it is very helpful, perhaps crucial, to share our spiritual lives not only with our meetings on First Day, but also with an intimate group of spiritual friends who know us well and to whom we reveal the inward workings of the Spirit within us. The community of others seeking likewise to root their lives deeply in God strengthens us like rich fertilizer, giving us both encouragement and challenge as needed.
In addition to taking more frequent opportunities for prayer, worship, and spiritual sharing, longer opportunities can transform us further. I am part of a group that for many years has organized regular gatherings during which we worship together for an entire morning. Although there are times of grace when I can move into gathered worship in a short period of time, it usually takes me nearly an hour of meeting for worship to be released from my deep attachment to my daily concerns, enough to begin to feel the wider influences of the Divine in my soul. This is where I am usually left at the end of the typical hour of worship on First Day mornings. It is good to be taken to that place every week with my meeting. But when I have the opportunity to stay in communal worship for an entire morning, I notice that what happens in the first hour is the beginning movement in a more profound process. As each hour passes, time and my more temporal concerns lose their grip, and the Spirit can do its work in me in a more intensive and refined way. It is like submitting to a delicate form of surgery whose intricacies I cannot comprehend, but whose effects are felt in a cleaner mind and heart, purer intentions, peace and renewed inspiration, more simplicity, and a greater openness towards others.
Contemplatives throughout the ages, as well as modern psychologists, suggest that who we think we are is to a large extent a social construct, a personality created to adapt to the beliefs and customs of our culture, and in reaction to the early experiences of our lives. In contrast to the pure Light of our soul, which is born out of the Divine Source, this constructed personality is a false self. In the interior silence of worship and prayer, we are called to enter into the dark cave where we are alone with the Divine Mystery, to let the garments of our false selves be removed layer after layer. In so doing, we gradually come to realize who we are in our essence. We discover our likeness to the Divine, in whose image we are made. We discover the Light that "lighteth every man who comes into the world" (John 1:9), and know it as our true self. Over the years, as we gradually offer ourselves up to this healing and transforming process in God in frequent prayer, in meeting for worship after meeting for worship, and in daily acts of loving service to others, we become better able to let the Divine Power work in us, and through us to heal and transform the outer world.
After the capture and death of Tom Fox in Iraq, I wanted to know more about this Friend who lived his faith in such a self-giving way. I was grateful to learn something about him from Friends who knew him, to read portions of his online journal in Friends Journal, and to read articles and eulogies about him. It seemed to me that he was one who, over a long period of time in worship, meditation, and in the acts of his life, had allowed this process of dismantling the false self centered on the ego in order to live the Light of the True Self. In a Viewpoint he wrote on September 11, 2003, which was published in the March 2006 issue of Friends Journal, he said, "The turbine of war can be reversed and begin to move as the turbine of peace; but it will take many, many people reversing their internal polarity so that all our energy is directed toward God and none toward our egos."
Just as this process is ideally undertaken in a loving and honest spiritual community of peers, it is also best to have one or more guides who have traveled the path and can help us see the Way. In every community, there are those whose lives of devotion and attention to the Spirit have made them especially able to offer helpful prayer and guidance for others. It is wise to seek their help. These seasoned Friends help our meetings to be places of fruitful spiritual growth and community. They help us learn to spread our roots; and they model what it can be like, spiritually, to grow tall and wide.
Historically, the most important guide for Friends was Jesus Christ, known first through the Light of Christ within, but also through the Gospels and the example of those who have given their lives to living it. Like many Friends raised in another Christian tradition, when I first came to Quakerism I thought I had outgrown Jesus. I was embarrassed by certain popular concepts of Christianity and by the way some people used the Bible to justify hurtful behaviors. I had come to seek spiritual community among Quakers because my awareness of a Divine Reality at work in me and in the world seemed just too large for this popular version of Christianity. It has been with some surprise, therefore, that I have gradually understood that the Spirit of Christ and the teachings of Jesus are also much larger than that. In their time, early Quakers rejected a spiritual life based primarily on belief in what Jesus once did, and focused instead on attempting to live Christlike lives in one’s own time with the Inward Christ as their guide. In a eulogy for Tom Fox given by Christian Peacemaker Teams Co-Director Doug Pritchard, I learned that a significant turning point in the spiritual life of Tom Fox came in a meeting for worship in which an elderly woman gave a simple message: "I feel that in all things we need to keep to Jesus." Hearing that message, Tom Fox’s heart was touched very deeply. According to his friend Doug Pritchard, it was a transforming moment that he relived every week for the next 20 years of his life, most likely during meeting for worship.
I believe that in our time Friends are again called to offer a radical alternative version of Christianity. Personally, I am convinced that God is at work in all religious beliefs and attitudes that are based on love, reverence, and service. Yet I have also learned that, for me, the face that the Inward Teacher most often takes is Jesus. I have discovered that the Spirit of Christ has long been at work in me, often in hidden ways, clearing my path to the Divine and clearing my heart and mind for God’s service. When we Friends sever ourselves from our Christian roots and do not avail ourselves of the Gospels and the writings of Friends and other guides who have gone before, we narrow the container in which we live, and cut ourselves off from roots we need in order to grow deep and tall and wide.
I’m grateful that my Quaker faith does not require me or anyone to attest to beliefs we do not hold, and I am not suggesting that people try to force themselves to swallow theological ideas that seem untrue to them. I do hope, however, that we come to our worship and prayer with an openness to have our understanding changed, with an openness to be touched and transformed by the power of the Spirit.
My initial spiritual openings taught me that there is an awesome Divine Reality that is intimately involved with my small human life. For many years the primary form that my prayer took was to listen for guidance from God so that I might follow it. I was glad to see clear evidence in my own life that such guidance was trustworthy. Sometimes I couldn’t hear any guidance, or couldn’t understand, or couldn’t quickly accept it when I did. However, I gradually learned that even more fundamental than listening for guidance is the prayer of simply seeking to be with God—just breathing together, just being like a child pressed against her mother’s chest listening to her heartbeat. In this state of just-being-with-God, the false self and false attachments gradually slide away. This just-being-with-God is akin to the prayer of self-giving, the prayer that says, "Here I am, Lord, use me!" even before we have heard how God might want to use us.
Sometimes it takes a lot of inner and outer transformation before we are capable of responding to God’s loving intention for our lives. Before we are ready to hear the specifics of our calling in the outer world, we may need to sink our taproot deeply toward the Source, far below the surface, to drink fully of the waters of the Spirit. I believe such is the condition of our Religious Society today as a whole. Some have already heard clearly what they are called to do outwardly; such Friends will find that sinking their roots in deeply and daily, through prayer and worship and spiritual fellowship, will allow Divine Power to work through them more completely. As we become deeply rooted, God will be able to do the necessary work of divine transformation through us—miracles both hidden and evident. We are asked to help humanity shift to a consciousness of the oneness of all people, the oneness of humanity with the Earth, and our oneness with a God of love and peace, justice, and healing. We are called to live in deep unity with, and give experiential testimony to, a divinity that is active and powerful in the world today.