A Quaker Prayer Life
By David Johnson. Inner Light Books, 2013. 80 pages. $20/hardcover; $12.50/paperback.
Reviewed by Harvey Gillman
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.
Born into a Jewish family, Harvey Gillman has been a seeker for most of his life. As outreach secretary for British Quakers, he wrote A Light That Is Shining. Other works include, A Minority of One and Consider the Blackbird. He has led workshops and has lectured in many places in the Quaker world. Harvey is a member of Brighton Meeting in England.
Making Our Connections: A Spirituality of Travel
By Pink Dandelion. SCM Press, 2013. 163 pages. $27.99/paperback; $27.81/eBook.
Reviewed by Valerie Brown
Pink Dandelion’s new book, Making Our Connections: A Spirituality of Travel, speaks on many levels: it is part Quaker historical guide, part travelogue, part autobiography, part prayer book.
Dandelion begins with tracing early Friends connection to travel, shedding light on the ways in which John Woolman and George Fox traveled in response to a call to faithfulness.
The book examines modern-day travel and the exponential growth of the mass tourism industry, which displaced the Grand Tour mainly available only to the élite. Dandelion rightly points out that mass tourism is secular in nature. The ancient form of pilgrimage travel has given way to prepackaged tours that offer a managed itinerary. Holidays have displaced holy days. The mass consumers of the working class, with our meager two-week vacation (at least in the United States), aren’t looking for the spontaneous and the unplanned. Instead, we are looking for surety that our increasingly dwindling vacation time is a true antidote to overwork. (This divide in U.S. society between work time and leisure time is a huge topic that, while not the topic of this book, greatly affects our ability to travel or take vacations at all.) Under these circumstances, in our fantasy, the weather is always perfect and luggage is never lost.
As a pilgrimage leader, I have led pilgrimage journeys worldwide. I am leading a pilgrimage along El Camino de Santiago route this fall. When I ask people why they’ve decided to take this pilgrimage with me, most say that they want, or even long, to travel in a way that aligns with their values. I have witnessed firsthand hordes of tour buses pull up in front of carpet and jewelry shops in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and other places. These holiday-makers were planning on cultural sightseeing, but instead found themselves on an excursion to the local “uncle” who happens to have “great prices and exceptional quality.” The unsuspecting tourist never sees the nine-year-old girl locked away to work in the airless, windowless, dirt floor basement. They don’t come in contact with the woman who takes “piece work,” getting below subsistence wages to feed herself and her family.
It was witnessing this affront to human dignity that ignited my passion to show people with the means to travel to far off places, off the beaten track, another approach to travel that honors human dignity and Quaker values of equality and social justice. I have found that people recognize the difference and the value of this type of travel.
Dandelion makes a very sound point that even the sacred act of pilgrimage has become commercialized. He describes the McDonaldization and Disneyization of travel. “Everything is merchandised,” he says. And this is true. It is possible to buy a prepackaged pilgrimage tour. We have forgotten, or perhaps never understood, that in the ancient tradition of pilgrimage, the hardships—getting lost, becoming drenched by a sudden rainstorm, taking a fall—have value, much as the mess of our daily lives provides the basis for cultivating compassion and understanding. We begin to see that the controlled environment of a prepackaged tour is relative, and we make space for something truer within us to emerge.
I am most smitten by Dandelion’s own accounts of travel (his bicycle trip in India as just one example) and would love to have read more about his adventures and lessons learned on the road.
As part prayer book, Making Our Connections beautifully describes the very heart of bringing spirit to travel: our capacity to stop and to listen—in other words, our capacity to be mindful. And Dandelion also makes it clear that travel does not mean only long distance, but can be right at our doorstep.
The book ends with many important insights into travel and into life. We are surrounded by the holy; the question is, are we present to what is already here?
If you are planning a journey of any kind, read this book before you go.
Valerie Brown is a member of Solebury (Pa.) Meeting, a popular retreat leader at Pendle Hill, and an executive and leadership coach and author. Her newest book is The Road That Teaches: Lessons in Transformation through Travel.
Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meeting House: A Biography
By Gregory A. Barnes. QuakerBridge Media of FGC, 2013. 377 pages. $25/paperback.
Reviewed by Robert Dockhorn
Despite the title of this book, which suggests a narrow focus on the history of a single building, Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meeting House: A Biography is a study of the entire sweep of Quakerism in Philadelphia, with the history of the building as a backdrop and silent witness.
The uniqueness of this particular building does feature in the story, however. There were several large meetinghouses in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, most of which were inadequate and eventually torn down. This one was built in several sections, starting in 1803, on top of a burial ground, very solidly, and it ended up being the only one that was satisfactory for the burgeoning yearly meeting.
Ironically, only a quarter of a century later, Philadelphia Quakerdom was split asunder by the Hicksite separation, and this meetinghouse remained in the possession of the minority Orthodox faction, which proceeded to isolate itself from most of the remaining Quaker world. It wasn’t until 1955 that the two Philadelphia branches of Quakerism found their way back together.
As Gregory A. Barnes portrays the life of Philadelphia Quakers over the centuries, he places slightly more emphasis on the Orthodox yearly meeting than the rest, but in fact he does cover the broader picture, including a brief treatment of the teaching of Elias Hicks and the furor it raised for some. Barnes takes interest in the whole spectrum of Quaker peculiarities and does not hide the blemishes. He treats the reader to wry comments, such as a remark that meeting for worship was the only “permissible form of entertainment” for early Friends.
He covers the founding of the major Friends schools and colleges of the area in some detail. He doesn’t ignore the unseemly and arcane politics of Quakers that led up to the division, and then the flourishing of writing and involvement in civil society that followed it, as well as controversy over how active Friends should be in the women’s and abolition movements in mid-nineteenth century. He treats the role evangelicalism played in the split, and in the further divisions in response to the ministries of Joseph John Gurney and John Wilbur. He traces the revival of the late-nineteenth century, spearheaded by Rufus Jones, followed by the leadership of Haverford scholars and the in-migration of activist Iowa Quakers in the mid-twentieth century.
For readers who have not been able to sort out the Quaker activism of the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras, Barnes will help in this tour de force with brief descriptions of AQAG (A Quaker Action Group), the Life Center, the Movement for a New Society, Friendly presence, and the encounter of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) with the Black Economic Development Conference and the issue of reparations.
Barnes brings his story into the twenty-first century with treatment of more modern-day issues including the many attempts at restructuring PYM’s bureaucracy; the relocation of the Twelfth Street Meetinghouse to George School in Newtown, Pa.; the need to repair the Arch Street Meeting House roof at a cost of $1,900,000; the failed attempt to establish senior housing for Quakers nearby; the ongoing discussion over the proper use for this large building after the construction of Friends Center around the former Hicksite yearly meeting building 11 blocks away; and the trend toward holding yearly meeting sessions outside Philadelphia.
To someone new to Quakerism, this book may not quite explain why so many of us are committed to this peculiar faith tradition and to what we think it offers that the world so badly needs. But as one for whom that is already understood, I found this to be a delightful read.
Robert Dockhorn is a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.
Rachel Wilson and Her Quaker Mission in 18th Century America
By Geoffrey Braithwaite. Sessions Books, 2012. 224 pages. $16/paperback.
Reviewed by Marty Grundy
The description is “the story of her religious visit to America, 1768–69, as contained in the pages of her journal, transcribed by her daughter, and set in the context of contemporary American Quaker history.” There are plenty of direct quotes from Rachel Wilson’s journal and letters interwoven with Braithwaite’s summary and historical context. This book also contains a list of sources and references, a glossary, an index, a journal chronology (lists of places and people chronologically, and in separate alphabetical lists), and maps.
The Braithwaite family has been prominent in British Quaker circles, and Geoffrey Braithwaite draws heavily on his relatives’ work to provide context: William Charles Braithwaite, Elizabeth Braithwaite Emmott, John Somervell, Anna Lloyd Braithwaite Thomas, and Janet Whitney. He also references a few more recent scholarly studies. This is clearly a labor of love, both a celebration of the author’s own substantial Quaker ancestry (Rachel Wilson was his great-grandmother) and an opportunity in the epilogue for a gentle rant on the state of Britain Yearly Meeting today. Braithwaite decries such open acceptance of diversity that there is a danger of having no solid core, no central faith. He quotes with approval the early Quaker watchword that “Christ is come to teach his people himself,” but then says these early Friends were ready to die for Quakerism. I don’t think that is what they thought they were doing: they were dying, or being killed, because they were living in obedience to Christ’s teaching, not an institution.
Those looking for a relatively easy read of Quakers in the period between the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution will appreciate this book. It provides good background summaries of Quaker ministers and ministry, the preparations and rigors of transatlantic travel, the rise of Quakerism, the enslavement system, John Woolman, New England treatment of early Friends, and much more. The book offers an accessible look at an eighteenth-century British Friend and her travel among Quakers in the colonies that would become the United States. Wilson was a celebrity, and people flocked to her public meetings. We get glimpses of her opposition to elders who were “snuffing” too much ministry, and her own evangelism. One of her sermons was transcribed and appears as an appendix. It is pretty straight forward orthodox Christianity: children and servants obey your parents and masters; substitutionary atonement; the job of a preacher is to preach repentance; the end times are coming; you will all die and must face the judgment; where will you spend eternity. Larded throughout are biblical phrases, parables, and allusions. It would be helpful to compare Wilson’s theology to more traditional Friends of her time, as well as to Wesleyans.
There are a few quibbles. Braithwaite suggests the word “divide” was meant to be “divine” in the phrase “enable him to divide the word aright.” But contemporary Friends used the verb to describe parsing or explaining a biblical passage. He misinterprets Wilson’s statement about proceeding from the spirit of this world in the phrase, “That those who proceed [depart] from the Spirit of this world may have no place among us,” thereby turning it on its head. She meant that those who live in the spirit of the dominant world or culture ought to have no place among Friends. His definition of quit-rents as a system intended “to persuade people to quit the land that they rented in England in exchange for a small annual rent in the colonies” is inaccurate, as is his suggestion that the more successful inducement to immigrate was “religious freedom … in exchange for these rents, whether in cash or in kind.” The motive for immigration for the vast majority then—as now—was economic opportunity. He also faithfully follows the historiography of his grandfather William Charles Braithwaite and Rufus Jones equating quietism with declension. There has been some recent reassessment of it.
This is not Wilson’s journal itself, but only the story of her travels in the ministry in the North American colonies. For more than a taste, for a full dinner of eighteenth-century Quaker women ministers, Wilt Thou Go On My Errand? edited by Margaret Hope Bacon is still unsurpassed. Nevertheless, this book is a good introduction to the rigorous life of a faithful travelling minister in the eighteenth century.
Marty Grundy is a member of Cleveland (Ohio) Meeting.
Bury the Dead: Stories of Death and Dying, Resistance and Discipleship
Edited by Laurel Dykstra. Cascade Books, 2013. 164 pages. $21/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Brad Sheeks
It’s very encouraging to learn of other faith communities doing good things. In this case, we have wonderful stories from Canadian Anglicans and Catholics about social justice concerns and end-of-life issues. The editor of this anthology, Laurel Dykstra, is at Saint Catherine’s Anglican Church in Vancouver. She has collected first person stories about facing death from people who have found support from their civil rights and peace communities.
Here is a sampling: a volunteer at Catholic Worker admits, “I do not do pain well; together we will learn to bear these things patiently.” She ends her story with, “Sorrow at my dying from AIDS becomes a bridge linking me with other community members—and a bridge connecting them with each other—in a deeper way. We will become a stronger community as we move through the experience. Grace is everywhere.”
Elizabeth Nicholas writes, “I AM A BLACK Haitian American woman alive in a culture that wants me dead.” She ends her story with the declaration, “I am committed to remind myself each day of my worth and value as a creation of the Most High. The things that American society and institutions have done to degrade and undermine my humanity are not my shame to bear.”
Have you wondered about the idea of a green burial? The last paragraph of the chapter titled “Caretaking the Gift” reads as follows: “The morning fog cleared. His body, clothed in his old, plaid shirt, jeans, and a beloved bandana, was lowered—the sling almost tearing (‘Just like my birth canal when I had Rozella,’ said Tensie). When we were done, the fog moved back in.”
Eda Ruhiye Uca is a North American, Middle Eastern, third-wave feminist woman of color, and a Muslim convert to Christianity. She thinks of the Exodus narrative as one in which the enslaved Israelites win the war but in turn enslave and murder the indigenous peoples of the newly colonized land. The comparison with immigrants who fled religious persecution in Europe by coming to North America is compelling. She goes on to suggest that “In Jesus, Palestinian Christians find a brother who lived and suffered as they have lived and suffered.” She quotes Jean Zaru, clerk of Ramallah Meeting in Palestine: “I can never accept my liberation at the expense of others … liberation is never a transfer of power. It is always a transformation of society.”
Dykstra has a story of her own: “Love Letters to the Dead Not Worth Saving.” She starts out with, “I started to do the math. Since 1992, when I first moved to the Catholic Worker, I’ve prayed at more than one hundred street funerals, memorials, and vigils.” Before sharing her love letters to the dead not worth saving, she tells them, “I am writing to a few of you who I counted as friends, with a friendship that resembled us: tentative, flawed, and bearing too much, but real and good.”
The odds of getting murdered if you live in Camden, N.J., are greater than 1 in 1,500. Andrea Ferich writes of the courage of Camden residents in the face of death. Father Michael Doyle at Sacred Heart Church welcomes Rocky Wilson to dance the fauschnuts. It’s a dance in the face of death on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. A footnote reports that Rocky came close to losing the odds in 2012 when he was mugged while riding his bicycle. The worship room at Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting is filled with laughter whenever Rocky speaks to us through his familiar puppet, Bongo.
What about miracles? Don’t we all wonder about them? Murphy Davis remembers, “As Dr. Spector spoke, her eyes filled with tears, and sorrow spilled its wet tracks down her cheeks … weeping with the news she bore about this rare and lethal cancer.” Davis goes on to tell of her community, “But even before the news spread, the prayers had commenced. And the prayers have never ceased. I can hardly begin to describe what this feels like and means to me. In spite of all the crises and diagnoses and predictions of death, I am alive and well. This is simply a mystery. And a miracle.”
A modest suggestion: if you would like to read more, skip your next dinner date and invest the 21 bucks in this book. There’s a bonus: proceeds go to support the Word and World Mentoring Program, where 22–30-year-olds with a thirst for justice engage in a study year with radical theologians and activist scholars for social transformation.
Brad Sheeks, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting is, at 77, mostly retired as a hospice nurse. A selection of his hospice stories was published in the July 2004 issue of Friends Journal. More recently he has written “Tuesdays with John,” a memoir of his year-long weekly lunches with John Fatula, who died in December 2013.
Public Secrets & Justice: A Journal of a Circuit Court Judge
By Laura Melvin. Shayna Publishing, 2013. 286 pages. $14/paperback; $7/eBook.
Reviewed by John W. Steele
Laura Melvin, dutiful daughter of an esteemed circuit court judge and of the Deep South, followed the path prescribed for her by her heritage: marriage, a son, the law, and ultimately the bench. But after ten years as a judge, she felt a great void in her life and a yearning to break free of the strictures that held her prisoner in a world that she felt had turned into a war zone. So, at age 53 and at the peak of her career, she resigned her judgeship and embarked on a journey to find her true self and “justice.” Having divorced her husband several years earlier and with her son now grown and newly married, she felt free, for the first time, to pursue lifelong interests of travel and writing. After acquiring a 30-foot RV trailer and sturdy pickup to pull it, she sold her house, gave away all of her belongings (except for the bare essentials), and hit the road, homeless, rootless, totally liberated, and with only Bruin, her loyal German Shepherd, for companionship. This book is an account of her yearlong travels around the country, punctuated by frequent retrospective looks at some of her more memorable experiences on the bench. The result is a fascinating memoir of a colorful, multifaceted, and adventurous woman and her search for meaning and a measure of truth.
Most of the stories from her judicial career come from her experience sitting in juvenile, family, and criminal parts of the circuit court (despite ten years of service she apparently never attained sufficient seniority to sit in the more sedate civil part), and they are described in candid and sometimes brutal detail. They are not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but they are nonetheless an accurate portrayal of real-life scenes occurring every day in our court system. Some of the accounts are heartbreaking, especially those dealing with abused and neglected children who obviously occupy a special place in her heart. Melvin is at her best, however, in helping us understand the challenge a judge faces in maintaining a neutral demeanor and state of mind in these difficult cases in order to insure fairness to all parties. She accomplishes this often by pulling back the curtain to reveal her actual thought processes during trials and hearings. One cannot help but be impressed with how conscientious she was in her efforts at evenhandedness despite frequently strong emotions that might have pulled her in an opposite direction. We can only hope that other judges do likewise, but one must wonder whether years of constant exposure to the inhumanity they see leave many of them jaded and cynical.
Indeed, it was a fear of developing such imperviousness that compelled Melvin to her odyssey in search of herself and for what it means to do justice. Her journey takes us into some of the less familiar, more remote parts of the country and into close contact with the natural world (or, at least, as close as one gets in an RV). Along the way, we meet old friends and casual acquaintances, all with interesting stories of their own. Her zest for adventure takes us along with her on skydiving outings, a sport at which she has some experience and enjoys immensely. For her, it is yet another form of freedom and the breaking of bonds. As a single female usually traveling alone (but for Bruin), she finds herself in some difficult situations which anyone (male or female) might find daunting, but she always manages to summon up her reserve of grit and courage to at least meet the challenge head-on even if she does not always overcome it. Most of her romantic relationships ended in failure, and she was left on her own to navigate by herself, but she seems to have always been able to draw strength from the self-reliance each one required of her in the end.
The birth of her first grandchild called her back (not necessarily home, for by then she was homeless in a real sense). She had learned something about hope, courage, stubbornness, and above all the importance of listening. But the meaning of true justice was still elusive, perhaps, as she says, because the legislature continues to move the target at the behest of special interest groups that benefit financially from changes in laws. It was not until some years later that she discovered that she had always been a Quaker, but “just did not know it.” Those of us who are Friends may have picked up clues earlier on: her minimalism; self-reliance; listening skills; strong sense of equality; and quest for truth, peace, and justice did much to point her in that direction. And, like William Penn and his sword, she wore her robe as long as she could.
John W. Steele III is a retired attorney and a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
By Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Company, 2014. 319 pages. $28/hardcover, $16/paperback; $12.74/eBook.
Reviewed by Ruah Swennerfelt
“In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” —Paul Ehrlich, as seen on a sign in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History.
I consider myself a well-informed person on the issues facing the environment and care for Creation, but Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book taught me a lot. I belong to a book group which has been meeting for about 12 years with a focus on the environment. Although it’s hard to keep reading about the serious consequences of human activities to all life on our planet Earth, occasionally a book comes along which captures the imagination and keeps the reader engaged in spite of the devastating topic. The Sixth Extinction is such a book. The author is not a scientist. Instead, she’s a writer, and that helps the reader learn through the author’s own exploration of the issue.
During the last half billion years, there have been five mass extinctions. Kolbert explores the probable causes of each of those extinctions and then begins her travels around the globe, learning about the mass extinction that is happening now. She begins by traveling to Panama, where frogs are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the Panamanian tree frog is already extinct.
This fact is a poignant piece of news for me because the summer I turned 12 (in 1959), I stayed with my aunt and uncle in Panama. My uncle was an engineer on the train engines, called “mules,” that pull the big ships through the Gatun locks in the Panama Canal. During a vacation to the Pacific side, we visited the extinct volcano where the Panamanian golden frog lived. My 12-year-old mind recalls it as the “Valley of the Golden Frog.” What an exciting moment it was to see those beautiful little frogs, and it hurts my heart to know that I can’t take my grandchildren there to see them. They are dying because of a fungus named Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd for short) that has been carried around the globe by humans.
According to Kolbert, “Without being loaded by someone onto a boat or a plane, it would have been impossible for a frog carrying Bd to get from Africa to Australia or from North America to Europe. This sort of intercontinental reshuffling, which nowadays we find totally unremarkable, is probably unprecedented in the three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life.”
Kolbert continues her travels to the Tyrrhenian Sea, where scientists are looking for causes of ocean acidification; to an island off the coast of Australia, where the coral reefs are in danger; to the diminishing Amazon forests; to New Hampshire, where bats are dying at an alarming rate; and to visits with scientists who are trying to save endangered species through many heroic efforts.
“Everything (and everyone) alive today is descended from an organism that somehow survived the impact of [the fifth extinction].” We, as Friends, have a responsibility to understand our spiritual relationship with Earth, and to avoid causing further harm to life that survived the fifth extinction.
I was constantly moved by Kolbert’s conclusions and laughed at times because of her sense of humor. I learned so much more about the delicate, yet resilient balance of life on Earth. I traveled places where I’ll never have a chance to visit. I cried when Kolbert described all the dead bats in the caves she visited and when I learned of the fate of the Panamanian tree frogs. She reinforced my resolve to continue to reduce my ecological footprint.
It appears that humans have caused extinctions ever since they traveled out of Africa to inhabit (over-inhabit?) the planet. She’s blunt about humanity’s effect on biological systems: “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.” However, until now, humans affected only the place where they lived. Today, humans can affect the planet by affecting weather patterns, and therefore, the fate of all of life as we know it.
I conclude with her words: “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.”
Ruah Swennerfelt lives in Charlotte, Vt., and is a member of Burlington Meeting. She is the former general secretary of Quaker Earthcare Witness.
Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth
Edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. The Golden Sufi Center, 2013. 254 pages. $24.95/hardcover; $15.95/paperback; $12.95/eBook.
Reviewed by Greg Moschetti
Broadly speaking, the discipline of spiritual ecology is “an exploration of the spiritual dimension of our present ecological crisis.” At this level, one could ask, what do religious and spiritual ways of thinking have to say about the earth: all that is in it, on it, and above it, human beings, the Divine, and the sacred relationships among all of these? Also at this level, one could consider how religious and spiritual ways of thinking and perceiving might move human beings to the change of conscience that so many writers on the ecological crisis believe is a prerequisite for establishing the political and cultural will necessary to address climate change.
This collection of 20 essays by faith leaders and prominent thinkers in spiritual ecology presents a variety of interesting views on how humans and our relationship to the earth would change if only we recognized the sacredness and interconnectivity of the earth and all that is in it, on it, and above it, including ourselves. The essays come from many different faith traditions and other more secular perspectives. The suggested worldview that emerges out of these is quite different from the more familiar idea of stewardship, wherein we as humans have a special relationship with the Divine, which compels us to be good stewards of the earth. In the stewardship view, the earth and all it holds are a gift from the Divine to us to be carefully used and managed. It is manifest in the Native Americans’ seven generation sustainability principle.
Most of the essays in this book would eschew the stewardship view as having failed. As they would rightly point out, we have not been very good stewards of the earth. The idea of stewardship is seen as dualistic: there is the earth and all that is of the earth, and then there is us. Instead, we are asked in many of these writings to consider non-dualistic spiritual traditions and more ancient and aboriginal views of the earth and of us, wherein we are part of all that is of the earth, on equal and sacred footing with all else. We are asked to imbue all that is of the earth with sacredness and soul and, most importantly, the earth itself. The premodern idea of anima mundi (soul of the world) is resurrected for consideration. In this worldview, the earth and all things, living or not, have a soul and are therefore sacred. Other writings focus on the idea of the interconnectedness of everything from both religious and systems theory perspectives.
The goal of spiritual ecology, at least as it is presented in this collection, is well stated in the essay by John Stanley and David Loy: “The challenge is to create a new story that brings together the best of science with the best of the non-dual spiritual traditions—Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, Taoism, Sufism, and other mystical traditions.” This collection shows us that the intellectual and spiritual struggle to create this story is well engaged, but also that the new story is at a stage of becoming. Whether it manifests in any of the ways suggested in this book or emerges in some entirely different way is indeterminate. What is clear is that the current extractive worldview of the earth, in which we can extract whatever we want for our human purpose, is not sustainable. Friends will find these essays interesting and thought provoking.