If you are a Friends Journal reader who first heads to the Milestones section when a new issue arrives in your mailbox, you’re not alone. It is not at all rare, in my travels, for me to talk with a reader who tells me that this is exactly their habit. Often they will disclose this practice with a note of mild embarrassment, as though there were one right way to read the Journal and this represented a rebellious act. I am always reassuring in response. There’s nothing shameful at all about delighting in reading outlines of the remarkable lives Friends have lived.
A less common pleasure in this magazine’s pages is the memoir of a Quaker life in progress. Our editorial calendar of themed issues does not often permit much room for this genre, but this month we have the privilege of bringing you, our reader, “God as a Cow and the Duck Index,” a piece by contributor Tina Tau that brims with integrity, self-reflection, pathos, and humor. Tau’s central conceit also allowed our graphic designer, Alla Podolsky, some room for creative improvisation.
One of the classic Quaker lives is that of Thomas Kelly, the theologian and mystic who gave us A Testament of Devotion. I have to admit that I have always found Kelly to be one of the more relatable giants of Quaker thought, probably because his life seemed to have the kinds of imperfections I recognize in my own life and in the lives of people I know. He’s not a saint possessed of impossible selflessness, but a flesh-and-blood human with ambitions, anxieties, and disappointments, coupled with a connection to the Spirit rooted in an experience he documents with the vigor of a theologian and the descriptive flourish of a poet.
In “A Mysticism for Our Time,” L. Roger Owens delves into both A Testament of Devotion and Kelly’s letters to bring Friends Journal readers a window into Kelly’s life that illuminates just how clearly Kelly perceived and experienced the link between suffering and joy. Kelly wrote his most enduring works after emerging from a personal breakdown and depression into clarity and passion. As it happened, he would only have a few years left to live, and these in a world at the precipice of war. Not to minimize the angst so many feel in today’s U.S. political and social climate since the election of Donald Trump, but it is a gift that Owens sidesteps the opportunity to draw cheap-shot parallels between Third Reich Germany and 2017 America. There’s a deeper and more durable lesson to be taught about fear and the human condition, which we can all carry with us in crystallizing and responding to our own concerns.
The mission of Friends Journal is to communicate Quaker experience in order to connect and deepen spiritual lives. This mission, of course, rests on the assertion that the very sharing of what Friends experience can forge connections and foster depth of spirit—no matter whether the reader or viewer is a Quaker or not. “A Mysticism for Our Time” is the kind of piece that proves this assertion is grounded in truth. Owens, who is an associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, studies a great Quaker thinker and distills a fresh and vivid definition of a key Quaker term, concern, that risks decaying into a cliche if not reexamined. It’s a powerful Quaker tool that every one of us can bring into our community, no matter how we define that community. I hope you’ll let us know what you think.