Come Back to the Body

I sense a revived yearning in the Religious Society of Friends to deepen and unite both our inner and our outer practice. I am inspired by early Friends who birthed a quality of religious freedom and personal spiritual authority not frequently experienced in the Western world. And just as we long to live lives of power and truth, the world still groans for justice, wisdom, and ecological restoration. What, then, is a posture in this world that might nurture in me a life of power and vision, releasing me and my meeting to be a balm to a broken planet?

The Psalmist advises, "Be still, and know that I am God," but what does that mean for my day-to-day life?

George Fox says:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests against blusterings and storms.

Margaret Fell says:

Now, reader, in soberness and singleness of your heart, . . .Let the truth of God have place in the heart . . .for truly the Lord, whom we seek, will suddenly come to His temple, and who may abide the day of His coming.

Isaac Penington says:

Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is his portion.

What am I to make of these evocative passages?

Perhaps early Friends were skilled poets sharing metaphors for the spiritual life to reflect upon and be inspired by in the still quiet of corporate worship and personal devotion. On the other hand, perhaps they were particularly observant students of the subtle ways that the Spirit actually moved in their own very real bodies. Perhaps, then, instead of turning my mind to reflect upon the idea of a beautiful metaphor, I might learn to open my mind to the body to feel for guidance from God. When I do remember to wait bodily upon the Lord, I am sometimes visited by the strength, the power, and the joy, not so much as a good idea in the mind, but as an actual experience in the body. Then, sometimes in words, sometimes in a way beyond words, the experience physically invites me to be the hands and heart of God in this world.

Many early Friends came from very simple backgrounds, worked with their bodies in the trades or in the fields, and walked in a world that was naturally dark at night. Their eyes, ears, and hearts were mostly filled by the natural sounds of the people, the animals, and the natural world around them. They experienced the Divine in ways that made them and others quake.

In contrast, my experience as a modern Western Friend is quite different. I live where the human mind rules. I attended a competitive high school and a good Quaker college. Much of my professional life has been working with words, sitting at a computer. I move in a world that is artificially illuminated and where my ears (and therefore my body) are filled with radio, TV, the sounds of automobiles, and the constant beeping of electronic gadgets. Sometimes I do still quake in worship, but I wonder if that is a less frequent and more mild occurrence today than in the times of early Friends.

It is as if we have laid down extra layers of interference between ourselves and the direct experience of the body and the natural world. Today, the journey back—through the body to the full power of the Holy Spirit—may be more encumbered, more littered with distraction.

To "be still," as the prophet and George Fox declare, may be to become more observant, more careful, more humble students of the movement of the Spirit in and through the actual body—not just our own physical bodies, but also our corporate bodies, and even the body Gaia or Mother Earth herself.

As I come to experience the movement of the Spirit in and through the physical body, I find that I read Scripture and the early Friends with a different ear, sit in worship in a different body, love the world with a different heart, and know God in a different way.

Not only is my experience of worship different, my understanding of the monthly meeting grows. I become interested in how love actually flows through the corporate body and in those practices that nurture the spirit of truth among us. I yearn for our meetings for business to become a corporate search for the direct experience of the Living God and less a conversation about good ideas.

I understand in a whole new way the injunction from George Fox to "walk cheerfully over the world . . ." Actually walking on the Earth, like George Fox and John Woolman and countless known and unknown Friends, takes on new meaning. It lightens my carbon footprint, but I also get to see the world at a different pace and from a different vantage point.

I see that putting my body out in the world, standing there, and waiting to be guided can itself be a spiritual practice. These past few months I have joined with Earth Quaker Action Team (, working to end mountaintop removal coal mining. I see that nonviolent direct action is a practice of discernment to be learned and developed and that the Earth is calling out to us to take up this practice and possibly fill the jails once again.

By coming back to the body—the physical body, the corporate body, and the body Gaia—by waiting on the life, the power, and the joy, Friends may yet, with divine assistance, remember how to turn the world upside down. To be sure, the world waits for us.

Walter Hjelt Sullivan

Walter Hjelt Sullivan, a member of Providence Meeting in Media, Pa., and currently attending Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is a Quaker educator, nonprofit manager, and certified practitioner and instructor of Breema, an esoteric form of bodywork and a commonsense approach to physical, mental, and emotional health. He occasionally blogs at