Seeking Union with Spirit: Experiences of Spiritual Journeys

By Fiona Gardner. James Backhouse Lecture, 2020. 52 pages. $14/paperback; $8.99e/Book.

As Quakers, we seek to be in union with Spirit. In this two-part James Backhouse Lecture—a series started in 1964 and offered annually by Australia Yearly Meeting—Gardner turns to advices and queries to contextualize her perceptions. Reflections on her spiritual journey unfold against a backdrop of crisis when, at age ten, God spoke to her. Readers follow a crisp narrative that documents Gardner’s ability to integrate her spiritual being seemingly into every facet of her existence, transitioning from a divided life to a life in union with Spirit. In reading the story of Gardner’s metaphorical spiritual journey punctuated by light and darkness, Margaret Fell’s distinctive words in “An Evident Demonstration to Gods Elect” came to mind: “blessed are they that believes and lives in the freedom of the spirit, for to the spiritual mind is life and peace.”

In the lecture, Gardner (since 1996 a Meeting for Learning facilitator in rural Australia) treats two main themes. Part 1 is a discourse on the central pillars of a spiritual journey: namely, experience, history, socio-cultural forces and contexts, and the inner and external worlds. Providing an example of how history and religion shape interactions with the world, she recounts the palpable tensions between Scottish Catholics and Protestants in her family. This situation fueled her early assumptions about what was acceptable in life, and also indicated the need to navigate that dark journey toward Light. When we balance love and truth as John Woolman did, we embrace both darkness and light within us as part of the spiritual journey. Engagement in community through intentional social action also nurtures and complements our inner selves.

Life-enhancing acts that help Friends live in union with Spirit is the focus of part 2. Gardner contends that we must nurture ourselves by employing silence in daily life and in meeting, and using discernment; humility; and honesty, including journaling and different ways of knowing. It is our spiritual journey—often challenged by an unwillingness to undergo the “hard work” of deep reflective listening or by a lack of courage to ask for what we need—that leads us to recognize our gifts and use them. The end product for Gardner is to move away from being to doing her vocation. Jungian musings on the unconscious (dreams, images that influence our actions) conclude the lecture, with encouraging language for Friends to stay grounded.

This book contains uncommon insights into a segmented journey. What kept me on track while reading were Gardner’s remarks on the values and spiritual expectations of First Nations people and their concept of interconnectedness in nature of the physical and spiritual worlds. In paying tribute to them as caretakers of the land, Gardner draws from their wisdom and knowledge. As the title specifies, pursuing union with Spirit is an inviting journey that marries experiences from individual and collective spaces.

Jerry Mizell Williams is a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. He is the author of numerous books, articles, and book reviews on colonial Latin America and matters of faith.

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