The Guided Life: Finding Purpose in Troubled Times

By Craig Barnett. Christian Alternative Books (Quaker Quicks), 2019. 80 pages. $10.95/paperback; $5.99/eBook.

What does it signify to live a guided life in the twenty-first century? I prepare this review in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and find the book’s subtitle pertinent as Friends and non-Friends alike search for tangible avenues in their lives and communities to respond to today’s challenges. To draw from the book’s inspirational thesis, a guided life “is rich in meaning and significance, because it is poured out for others.” The path to a relationship with the Inward Guide—once achieved and nurtured—is as spiritually healing as it is transformative, yet that very pathway can be fraught with discomfort and challenges. In five short chapters, Barnett escorts us through the nuances and implications of consenting to live a guided life marked by vitality.

The first two chapters address the question that all Quakers contemplate: “How shall I live?” For Barnett, the answer lies in exploring the source of Inward authority, following passionate individual leadings, and opening to the process of discernment. It is through the practice of silence that we come to know the Inward Light “as a divine gift of spiritual perception,” and in turn realize our true nature. Within our Quaker way, Spirit-led action is the product of attentive waiting and engagements with the Spirit, wherein we embrace divine intentions and one another. Participation in community and collective decision making affords opportunities to renew our responsibility to listen and contribute to corporate discernment, and to employ Quaker testimonies to better serve God’s purposes on earth.

But when life is broken (chapter 4), we sometimes transition to a second adulthood, another phase of spiritual searching, revealed in the discriminating operation of the Inward Guide. Barnett is at his best when describing how the Guide announces itself against currents of resistance, for the Seed’s own inward dynamic is beyond our control.

So why do Quakers choose life, eschewing attractions that hold the potential to translate into spiritual distractions? We favor lives of relative simplicity, and, when healed and held by a divine Presence, we live in forgiveness, truthfulness, and friendship, and contribute to supportive communities defined by collective discernment and corporate testimony. We wait in the Light, comforted by the tradition of stillness that grounds Quaker practices.

Barnett concludes by positing that the Spirit offers life and introduces openings for divine compassion to lead us all, regardless of our faith. In choosing to lead a guided life, we agree to share our talents and meet uncertainty that we may affirm life. One of the valuable lessons we take from the COVID-19 pandemic is how much life is enriched and nourished by spiritual engagement in a community where, individually and collectively, we are responsive and responsible to the world as we uphold dignity.

Barnett is part psychologist and part life coach when he discusses his spiritual itinerary, in particular the intimate steps of preparing himself for worship. The Guided Life is an edifying personal colloquy, and I recommend it to those unfamiliar with Quaker ways and to anyone who seeks membership in the Religious Society of Friends.

Of related thematic interest is Jennifer Kavanagh’s Practical Mystics: Quaker Faith in Action. Another in the Quaker Quicks book series, it is a more in-depth study of mysticism than presented in her earlier volume, A Little Book of Unknowing (reviewed in FJ March 2016). Both of these authors are from the United Kingdom, which accounts for localized topical references. Readers will find in Kavanagh an elemental Rufus Jones-inspired framework for discerning the role of silence in mystical traditions in the journey toward receiving the grace of God. The Quaker Quicks series is published by Christian Alternative Books, an imprint of the UK-based John Hunt Publishing.

Reviewed by 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.

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