And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. —1 Samuel 3:1
"You are being prepared to receive a message." These internal words are accompanied by a shift of awareness to a deep interior place. Around me is a group gathered in morning worship.
Twelve years earlier, in 1984, something had suddenly opened inside me during a year of spiritual searching for the meaning of life. On a night’s walk home under a dark and starry sky, I was given a glimpse of a Light permeating and uniting all things in a divine Oneness. The Light was immediate and present in all of Creation, in the distant stars as well as in me. I felt a power flowing through my body and out of my fingertips into the world. I knew intuitively that this great invisible power could heal any problem on Earth.
After that night under the stars, I began sensing that I had been created for a particular task in the world. I recognized that my life was being guided by something far beyond my small human personality. The divine Oneness is vast and universal, more infused into everything than I’d ever imagined from stories I’d heard about God. Out of a great love for humanity and planet Earth, God wants to bring about a healing transformation. In meditations, dreams, and visions, I saw that as humanity moves toward increasing environmental and social catastrophes and crises, a global shift in human consciousness is needed, a shift to living in harmony with one another and trusting in the direct guidance of the Spirit.
I understood I am called to live my life in conscious daily communion with the Spirit, and to teach others how to do the same. This understanding altered the course of my life. At age 28, having just finished graduate school, I gave up my opportunity for a conventional career path as a college professor, instead choosing to teach part- time while pursuing spiritual growth and sharing what I learned with others.
"You are being prepared to receive a message." Again these words come to me in the morning meeting for worship, and now I feel pulled into an ocean of shining amber Light. I imagine I am being prepared to offer some vocal ministry, a message about being called by God. How can I communicate what it’s like to be asked to give over complete control to God?
I wonder if the Power I am sensing is affecting the rest of the group. Suddenly the respected elder sitting in front of me pops off his bench energetically and begins to speak. He says that God calls people directly. He recounts the Bible story about young Samuel hearing his name one night. The priest Eli, his teacher, finally understands it is God who is calling Samuel, and instructs the boy that if God calls him again to say, "Speak, Lord, thy servant is listening." When Samuel listens, he hears a message he must transmit.
The man in front of me telling this story seems to be drawing on the same spiritual prompting I am experiencing, but he speaks with an easiness I don’t feel, using a story from the distant past. The message I am being prepared to receive is about what it’s like today to surrender control over one’s personal choices in order to live for God’s mysterious purposes. After the elder finishes speaking, the prompting to speak is gone. Later I realize that the message I am being prepared to receive is beyond anything I could have said in that morning’s meeting for worship.
God Still Wants to Speak and Act Through Us
Samuel’s story begins in a land where people have stopped receiving direct guidance from the Spirit. During weekly church services when I was growing up, I’d heard biblical stories about prophets, all of them men. The common belief that I absorbed was that prophecy had ended long ago— if it ever really happened at all. I had not heard of any contemporary— man or woman—claiming to hear God’s voice. The mystical experiences I began to have in 1984 were, therefore, startling and unexpected.
I sought a spiritual community that could support a person with a sense of receiving divine guidance, and I found a home among Friends. I appreciated the Quaker understanding that we can all be guided by God—women equally with men. In our homes, workplaces, meetings, and everywhere else, we all have opportunities to exercise the ministry of God’s love and give witness to truth and justice. I also saw that there come times when individuals and groups experience a leading to dedicate their lives to ministry in a particular way—by taking certain actions, speaking widely about a concern, traveling to be with particular people, undertaking a specific task, or initiating something new.
I found it challenging to make space in myself and my life to hear the subtle voice of God and to live my life in obedience to its prompting. As I paid attention inwardly, I was led toward both inner and outer changes. I needed to spend more time alone or in silence, listening to my heart and using spiritual practices, including prayer, to become more receptive to the Spirit. Outwardly, I needed to let go of a conventional lifestyle, becoming less independent and more communal. I was led to prepare and facilitate courses, workshops, and retreats related to the spiritual life, and to offer spiritual nurturing to individuals. Sometimes I was invited to travel. Eventually I was led to give up my parttime position as a teacher of college writing classes in order to give over my whole life to this ministry. I felt prompted to ask my small meeting to provide support in both spiritual and practical ways. Afraid of making such a request, I wrestled with God about this for months, but eventually I surrendered.
Ministry Belongs to the Community
At a session of the clearness committee appointed to meet with me, a member remarked that I did not have professional qualifications, nor was I charismatic. Furthermore, I had not, in his opinion, obtained enlightenment. I agreed. I had no seminary degree. I was shy. And furthermore, I had not attained a continuous awareness of union with the Divine. However, after much prayer, I told the committee at its next meeting that I felt sure about one thing. For more than a decade I had sensed God leading and drawing me into this ministry. Many people and groups had testified to being nurtured by it. The task of the clearness committee was not to evaluate me as a professional applying for a salaried position but to discern if the Spirit of God was calling me. After meeting three times, the committee felt clear that I was indeed receiving a genuine call to share my experience of divine presence and guidance and to nurture others in paying attention to their own experience of God.
To discern if the meeting was called to support this ministry, meeting members accompanied me to events where I was a speaker or facilitator. I spoke to the meeting about my ministry and answered questions. At a called meeting, Friends threshed many issues, some of them difficult. After 18 months, the meeting approved a minute recognizing that I was called to a ministry of fostering spiritual renewal. A support and accountability committee began to meet with me, and some Friends in the meeting and beyond felt led to offer modest but regular financial support. The difference it made to have this kind of spiritual and practical support from my meeting was tremendous. It enlarged what I was able to do, because I was no longer doing it from a personal initiative; I was doing it as part of a community united in a sense of God at work among us.
Since moving to Philadelphia, I am now a member of a medium-sized meeting that took my ministry under its care after another 18-month discernment process. I meet five or six times a year with a committee appointed by the meeting, a group that helps me grow into each new stage as God’s call on my life unfolds.
For many years I had no regular source of income. I gave talks, taught courses, and facilitated workshops or retreats for Quaker meetings or retreat centers. I served as an adjunct teacher at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa., and offered courses in my own home. I lived inexpensively with other Friends and did not own a car or have health insurance. I took part-time jobs as necessary. Then for four years I lived as the resident Quaker studies teacher at Pendle Hill. Now I have taken time away to complete a book and am working with another Friend to create a video for the Internet on Quaker spiritual practices.
In addition to these outward activities, I continue daily practices that help me connect more completely with Spirit. In the metaphor of the prophet Jeremiah, my heart of stone is being replaced by a heart of flesh on which is written God’s law—a tendered heart that God can guide directly. The Light is gradually dissolving me into itself; it is the essence of my own true being. According to the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the divine Light that incarnated in Jesus lights everyone who comes into the world. When my separate sense of self has finally fallen away, I may be able to speak the New Testament words quoted by Christian mystics and early Friends: "It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me."
Some of my recent dreams draw on today’s technology for metaphors of this inner transformation. In one dream I can no longer run off of old, run-down batteries, but must switch to renewable batteries being recharged by the sun. In a series of dreams, the familiar dented car I’m in stops running; it’s time to get out. In the last dream, when I finally get out of the old car, I see a smaller, shining vehicle ahead of me, waiting with open doors. In other dreams it’s time to erase old files and limited programs from my computer. I must shut down and reboot on an entirely new operating system. Jesus waits at the entrance to this new system, welcoming me in.
Called Out by Community
Opening to the fullness of our true identity within the divine Oneness is something that requires the support of a community. Those who are led to particular ministries outside the meeting have felt a strong need for this support. In meetings that have recognized the ministries of several members, one committee is sometimes appointed to serve two or more different Friends’ ministries. Whether recognized by their monthly meeting or not, some Friends called to a ministry have also formed groups for mutual accountability.
After I moved to Philadelphia, I encouraged my new housemate as she, too, heard a call—in her case, a passion to care for the Earth and a leading to teach alternative lifestyles. Her salaried job kept her very busy, but she was so moved by the calling of another member of our meeting that she joined committees to provide support for his ministry. As she witnessed his struggle to center his life in the Spirit, her own leading to do the same gradually emerged. She arranged a demotion at work in order to free up more energy for environmental activism. A trip to South Africa galvanized her sense of urgency in the world, and visits to eco-villages in Costa Rica and Colombia gave her hope that there are ways to choose a sustainable lifestyle and people willing to pioneer that path. Then she accepted early retirement in order to give all her time to the ministry to which she was now ready to dedicate her life’s efforts wholeheartedly. For many years she has been traveling to speak and teach at Quaker gatherings across the country—traveling by bus or train, not airplane or car. She has written articles, prepared Power Point presentations, led workshops, and clerked committees.
She and I are members of a mutual accountability group composed of six Quaker women. Members of our group have created and facilitated religious education and spiritual formation programs, taught about Sabbath Jubilee and the economics of justice, traveled to India to support Quakers and Right Sharing work there, ministered among those in prison and in the neighborhoods from which many prison inmates come, written plays, and created theater productions that strengthen the soul. We meet once a month and focus on two of us at each meeting. We listen, ask questions, draw out deeper knowing and hidden fears, challenge, pray, cry, laugh, and love each other.
I also participate in a group containing both women and men. Sharing my unfolding story and hearing those of others over many years has helped me become more aware of the work of the Spirit and the ways we resist as well as cooperate with it. Both men and women face fierce internal resistance to offering our voices and our actions in the prophetic, countercultural ways to which Spirit calls us. My struggle, like most women’s, includes reckoning with deeply embedded social conditioning that denies the sanctity of women. Women of my generation and earlier (and perhaps still today) have been trained to doubt ourselves deeply and to devalue the ideas and initiatives that want to come through us. Peer groups have helped me and others to face and allow God to dissolve layers of fear, self-doubt, and resistance.
Both meeting-appointed committees and mutual accountability groups help with discernment. In these groups Friends have the opportunity to speak aloud insights, experiences, and struggles that we have not shared before—or often enough—allowing deep truth to become more fully part of our conscious, lived lives. Through questions and listening, through prayer and encouragement, and especially through love, these groups provide holy accompaniment. As a result, those who participate gradually become more surrendered, bolder in faithfulness, and more alive to our call. We are joined with many others in learning how to receive and live into the message that is being given to us to share in the world.
Message for Today
Like other human beings with whom I share this planet, I feel unsettled by the numerous social and environmental crises and catastrophes that have planetary effects. Many species are becoming extinct, and ours may not survive the changes we have set in motion. Each person and community has a role to play in humanity’s choice to evolve to a deeper awareness and find sustainable ways to live on this planet—or not. My mystical "opening" under the stars 25 years ago, along with many experiences since then, convince me that great spiritual power is available to help us make a huge leap.
Before Samuel heard the prophetic call, the word of God was rare and there was no vision in the land. An even bigger miracle is needed in our day. God is calling us to more than an internal mental dialogue with the Source of all life. Like Samuel and the biblical prophets, we are called to speak and act as the Spirit prompts. We are also invited to incarnate the divine Source, to embody it not just in our words and actions, but in our being. Like Christ who modeled it, we can live with a heartfelt awareness of our divine nature, in the flow of divine Power. Both individuals and communities are called to let the Divine so infuse our consciousness and our actions that we become living embodiments of that great Love that wants to heal humanity and the Earth.