By Pamela Haines. Christian Alternative Books (Quaker Quicks), 2021. 80 pages. $10.95/paperback; $5.99/eBook.
This little book is part of the Quaker Quicks series, and consists of a number of short reflections on topics ranging from consumerism to the dilemmas of helping people. The reflections are organized into six main sections. In the preface, the author describes the pieces as meditations written in a non-religious language over the course of many years that are about “being alive in these wonderful and perilous times.”
As I started reading the book, I struggled a little to make sense of how the pieces fit into a whole. It felt a little like trying to do a dot-to-dot puzzle with dots that weren’t numbered, but I think that is partly the point. Each section raises questions that can be read as Quaker queries. The first one is given in the introduction, which is its own section, and provides the organizing principle for all the rest: “What if the central principle for organizing our lives was moving ever closer to what rings true?”
The meditations that follow describe things that ring true for the author. There are many nuggets of wisdom that are shared in the context of stories and experiences. But rather than just telling us what rings true, Haines again and again raises queries. Queries are, of course, questions that do not have straightforward answers; they require reflection, thinking, prayer, worship, and discernment. These meditations invite the reader to do just that.
Some of the meditations open up areas that might seem new for many Friends. The third section of the book is called “Love and Grief.” She asks what we are to do with all the wrong in the world, and one answer she gives is that we need to grieve. That may seem anathema to Quaker activists raised on the mantra “don’t mourn, organize!” But Haines connects this idea to advice she once heard from a Native grandmother in Canada, “You have to cry till your tears are sweet.” And she invites us not to grieve alone, but to join with all the others who grieve for our world.
Two things here are important and might provide real strength for Friends. First, you don’t grieve something or someone unless you love. Second, grief provides transformation and ultimately strength. In this way, the focus on grief can perhaps help us stay tenderhearted in a hard world and help us avoid cynicism and contempt.
The meditations effectively weave this focus on grief into a wider focus on listening, love, and respect. The author reflects on how we can be present with people in ways that are about them, not us. She shows us that respect is not about being polite; it is about being curious about people and seeing them in “full focus.”
On one level it is true that these meditations are written in a non-religious language. There is no theology, and there are no biblical references. But if the core of the Gospel and the Torah is love of God and neighbor, then there is religion here, because there is deep love.
This book can provide a starting point for deep, personal reflection. I can also see this book working well as a starting point for a Quaker study or discussion group. One could read a section or two and use worship sharing to address the queries. In that way, readers can bring their own religious language to the text and connect the dots in whatever way makes most sense. After all, only you know what rings true for you.
Erik Cleven is a member of Souhegan Preparative Meeting in New Hampshire. He is a professor in the Department of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.