By Rex Ambler. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 463), 2020. 44 pages. $7.50/pamphlet.
As Quakers, we often refer to ourselves as “mystics.” The purpose of this pamphlet is to ask and attempt to answer the straightforward but knotty questions: Are we really? If so, then do we differ from the age-old tradition of mysticism? And if so, how?
First, we need to agree on what we think that word means. The most succinct definition is perhaps that of Evelyn Underhill in Practical Mysticism (1915): “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality,” being careful to note here her careful avoidance of the word “God.” It is not so much a system as a quest, and this quest is for something ultimate, deep within each person. An example of mysticism that does not imply a deity, I would add, is Buddhism’s quest for the awakened “Buddha nature,” the deep wisdom that resides at the core of every individual being.
Turning more specifically to the tradition of Christian mysticism, its centering on the quest for God is obvious. A heightened awareness of God’s immediate and transforming presence led to an ascetic tradition, with monks and nuns in cloistered monasteries: implying far-reaching rejection of the surrounding world yet still within the confines of established religion.
A crucial development leading to later Quaker mysticism was one clarified by Rufus Jones in The Flowering of Mysticism (1939). This was the growing insight, exemplified by such religious figures as Teresa of Ávila and Julian of Norwich, that the Spirit of God could be connected with directly, without having to consult priests or even the Bible.
By reminding us of all this, Ambler has been preparing the way for what he sees as the uniqueness of Quaker mysticism. George Fox’s own quest for spiritual meaning led him to think that if he were to have real trust, he had to experience this reality for himself. The reality deep within himself was, as we know, the living Christ, the embodiment of the wisdom with which the world was made, speaking to him. It was the Light, in other words, available to everyone at any time. Thus far, though, there is little distinction between this and traditional mysticism.
The alternative mysticism the Quakers offered centers on the key word “oneness,” which appears in the pamphlet’s title. Oneness with God necessarily implied, to Quakers, oneness with the whole of creation. Or said in more personal terms, the potential for spiritual awakening brings with it an awareness of the creation in its entirety. “The world and the body are affirmed joyfully as the means by which we can achieve liberation and find oneness with the ultimate reality” (emphasis added). This is the consistent appeal to experience that is exemplified, for instance, in our testimonies.
Ambler carries this insight a step further in making the bold, almost holographic-sounding statement, “The human being is a scaled-down model of the universe as a whole,” intriguingly reminiscent of Hildegard of Bingen’s “Each human being contains heaven and earth and all of creation.” The conclusion is that the Quakers firmly rejected the more ascetic, world-renouncing tradition of classical mysticism. William Penn once described monasticism uncompromisingly as “a constrained harshness, out of joint to the rest of the creation,” although his contemporary Robert Barclay recognized that many of the earlier mystics knew that true worship of the Spirit was possible without preoccupation with external things.
We sometimes ask ourselves just what we have in mind when we feel so free to call ourselves “mystics.” Ambler answers this for Friends by suggesting the term “inclusive mysticism.” He does here a masterful job of clearly outlining such an unwieldy and diffuse subject, embodying a mystical vision in a fresh and practical way, in fewer than four dozen pages.
The pamphlet concludes with part of Fox’s Epistle 358, as previously published by Ambler in his Truth of the Heart: An Anthology of George Fox. It is faithful to Fox’s wording but rewritten in a versification that wonderfully captures the rhythms of his voice:
With my love to you in the holy peaceable truth
that never changes,
nor admits of evil,
but makes all free
that receive it
and that walk in it
And from the truth floweth justice,
equity, righteousness and godliness,
mercy and tenderness,
that brings a man’s heart, mind, soul and spirit
to the infinite and
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting. He is the author of Pendle Hill pamphlet 418, Some Thoughts on Becoming Eighty-five.