A Quaker Prayer Life
Reviewed by Harvey Gillman
By David Johnson. Inner Light Books, 2013. 80 pages. $20/hardcover; $12.50/paperback.
There are some books one can review, as it were, from a distance, giving one’s opinion on style, content, ordering of material, and accuracy of content. I read David Johnson’s book, A Quaker Prayer Life, at first for my own profit and only afterwards was asked if I might review it. This review is in a way the fruit of my engagement, my conversation with the author through his written words.
My first quandary was why he used the word “prayer” in the title. I would have chosen “worship” or “prayerfulness.” Traditionally, Quakers have not used set prayers, so the title may be slightly misleading to some people. However, in the introduction, Johnson points us to his way of thinking: “Prayer is a conscious choice to seek God”; it arises from “a life of continuing daily attentiveness”; it becomes “a practice of patient waiting in silence.” So the book is not about Quaker prayers but a life of attentiveness. In this way, it reminds me of Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion with its clarity, its gentle guidance, the richness of its quotations from (mostly) early Friends, and its reference to other Christian and Eastern spiritual practices. There is an excellent summary with an appendix (”techniques that some have found helpful”), which reads as an afterthought but perhaps could have been included in the main body of the text.
The author is well aware of the variety of understandings of the Divine among Friends. He also refers to how a more recent psychological understanding has contributed to Quaker thinking about the relationship of the self to the Divine. I am not sure this topic is fully taken on board (does one try to eliminate the self or transcend it?), but in 67 pages of text, one cannot ask for too much analysis, especially as the emphasis is a practical one: how do I learn patience; how do I cope with a sense of failure, or darkness; how do I wait when little seems to be happening?
These questions really spoke to my condition. I have attended meeting for worship most weeks for almost 40 years. I have read Quaker literature for the same period. I have spoken on the subject of Quaker worship for many years as well, but this small book elders me in the best sense. I can still sit in meeting and wonder what on earth I am doing here. I still wonder whether there is anything there at all. Yes, I am reminded in this book that we are not there to think; we are not there in order to minister; we are not there to have great revelations. We are there in order to fully be there, to be present in the Presence, which means intentionally to put ourselves before God or Spirit, the essentially nameless One.
That the author draws upon both early Quaker and Buddhist ideas shows that the relation between self and the Other is an ambiguous one, and that no form of words quite gets the relationship. Sometimes I felt that Johnson was emphasizing the transcendent aspect of divinity, whereas I would stress the immanent, but the real challenge lies elsewhere: how are we ever fully there? or fully here? Intellectually we know the answer: we are to attend, to wait, to grow, to gently put aside extraneous thoughts; we are not to judge ourselves, but accept the measure of truth and light we are given. After almost 40 years, this Quaker still finds these simple truths difficult to follow. It can be frightening to face the nameless emptiness of self and to realize that some of the supports that other religions offer—calendars of holy days, clerical advisors, music, set prayers—whilst not without value, are in the last instance not what brings us into the Presence.
At the end of the day, after 20 years as outreach secretary of Britain Yearly Meeting, working with newcomers and attenders, I can only say there are moments when one realizes that one is in the place one is meant to be, unfathomable moments when words and thoughts are really transcended. Taste and see—and do not be afraid.