Forum, October 2021
October 1, 2021
Photo by fauxels on Pexels
October 1, 2021
Photo by fauxels on Pexels
The ninth annual Friends Journal Student Voices Project is calling all middle school (grades 6–8) and high school (grades 9–12) students to add their voices to the Friends Journal community of readers. This year we’re asking students to write about climate change and their role in the movement to stop it.
We welcome submissions from all students (Quaker and non-Quaker) at Friends schools and Quaker students in other educational venues. Select pieces will be published in the May 2022 issue, and honorees will be recognized by Friends Council on Education. The submission deadline is February 14, 2022. Instructions and details can be found at Friendsjournal.org/studentvoices.
David Castro’s “All Walls Come Down” (FJ Aug.) does not try to hide from the complexity of life and love. Some would like tidy answers that make us feel good. The discussion is challenging and often discomforting. Perhaps it makes us go deeper.
Very interesting article on the two opposing threads of existence: entropy/destruction and love/creativity. As a product of the love/creativity thread, I’m naturally much more interested in this than entropy/destruction. For nearly all of my working life, I worked for a computer supplier as a systems support person. In one of our periodic internal restructurings, I was allocated a major arms manufacturer to support. I knew at once that I did not want to take on the support of this particular customer, but didn’t know whether I would lose my job as a result. Eventually I gathered up my courage and told my manager that as a matter of conscience I simply could not support an arms manufacturer. Luckily he understood my position and allocated this customer to another member of staff who was more than happy to have this responsibility and seemed to flourish in it.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Beautiful reflection, with your words I have meditated on the density of matter and the slightest forms of the Spirit. Nothing remains, everything changes. I have nothing to fear when I am connected to God.
I am another reluctant Quaker treasurer—after decades of service on struggling finance committees (hoping never to be again!), I was led to be treasurer for a struggling nonprofit resistance organization (“Confessions of a Reluctant Quaker Treasurer” by Michael Sperger, FJ Aug.). The author’s observation that meetings never vary more than a single percent or so from breaking even strikes a chord. Friends can nearly balance the pencil on its point because we respond quickly to feedback, supplying a little more or a little less as it is needed. We start by considering what the meeting needs and wants to accomplish, and govern our giving by that. That is ethically superior to starting with what we want to give and limiting the meeting’s accomplishments. It is harder to do at the yearly meeting or national level, though we could try putting out alternative budgets, saying “This is what we could do with this much income.”
If the United States were to attempt to budget this way, we might start with the observation that the average U.S. GDP per person is $70,000. $280,000 for a family of four! With that degree of abundance here, there is plenty to share with the rest of the world. That leads to a number of difficult discussions, both economic and spiritual. We can start by learning to share among ourselves in this country. Once the habit is established, we might do better at approaching others.
As Quakers and as inhabitants of North America, we live amongst enormous spiritual and economic abundance and don’t even notice it, like the air we breathe. The Giver of Life provides us with abundance and challenges us to be the midwives and parents of a better future.
Reading through this essay reminds me of the first Friends General Conference Gathering that I attended. Young Adult Friends joined the Quakers in Business folks for a dialogue about money. The conversation quickly became heated, frank, and challenging. What an exciting moment!
That retreat was one of the few times that I have witnessed Quakers talk about money, wealth, or debt in their personal lives. Some people were focused on how to use the stock market for good; others needed room to talk about student debt. Some people (mostly older Friends) had great faith in our financial institutions; other Friends (mainly younger Friends) were suspicious about continuing current financial systems. At one point a younger Friend said something to the effect of: “You don’t understand! You’re teaching us how to use the capitalist system to preserve our wealth, but what we want to do is take down the capitalist system entirely!”
That conflict, for me, was fresh and inspiring—much like Sperger’s essay. Looking back, I wish we’d had some of the queries from his article to guide us through that wonderful and murky territory.
State College, Pa.
The title of an August QuakerSpeak episode asked viewers, “What Are Your Favorite Quaker Words or Passages?” We got a lot of responses in the comments!
One of my favorite Quakerisms is when I say that someone’s ministry “speaks to my condition”—it is such an archaic but descriptive way of acknowledging the truth of somebody else’s words. The other is the idea of “discernment.” It is so rich and deep, so much more than agreement or conclusion.
“I will hold you in the Light” gives me the image of wrapping a person in a cloak of true caring. To me it is so much more meaningful than saying, “I’ll pray for you.”
My favorite Quaker passage is William Penn’s “Let us then try what love can do.” Or the complete passage, “Let us then try what Love will do: For if Men did once see we Love them, we should soon find they would not harm us.”
Jerry L McBride
San Mateo, Calif.
My favorites are “That which is eternal” and “The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable.”
New Paltz, N.Y.
Bill Taber reminded us to be open to “opportunities” for worship at any time and in any setting with any number of people. Let us all be open to all such opportunities.
When we pray for someone, we say, “hold you in the Light!” I love this brief, caring phrase that speaks of our concern. It comes from our heart and from our desire to lift someone up rather than just speaking words.
My favorite phrases are “continuing revelation” and “way will open.” When I believe in continuing revelation, I believe that God will show me the way, one step at a time.
“Let Love be the first motion.” I often bring this up when I’m trying to discern whether my response to a situation is the best one. I can ask myself whether the response is coming out of love, or fear, or anger, or helplessness. And then, if it is not love driving the response, I can consider what a response led by love would look like for me.
I love the simplicity with which Stanford Searl explains his experience of the silence of Quaker worship (“Coming Home to Silence,” FJ Aug.). As a keen Quakerism student, Searl’s testimony of his experience has literally carried me into a first-hand experience of a Quaker worshiper. Coming from a vocal worship background, and having limited knowledge and experience in silent waiting, I found his experience quite captivating and enlightening.
Rev. Simon Khaemba
I learned how to enjoy silence as an anxious adolescent. My favorite venue was the feed corn plot. It was well out of sight. And if my physically and emotionally abusive stepfather came down to supervise, he found me silently and rhythmically chopping weeds between the corn plants. Finding me thus, he turned on his heel and walked back to the house without comment. That was a good thing.
I was a busy husband/father/analyst/part-time workshop instructor when I stumbled into Friends worship. It took a few months to settle into the silence while sitting among others, but I had an encouraging guide. Searl spoke my mind with his biographical account of feeling at home in the silence.
In “The Mystical Experience” (FJ Aug.), Donald McCormick describes “mysticism as the heart of Quakerism.” He helpfully explains the range of spiritual experiences that can be described as mystical. I would define mysticism as direct experience of the Divine, which includes the contemplative experience described elsewhere in the issue by Stanford Searl.
At times in the past century, some Friends have debated whether Quakerism is, at heart, a mystical faith or a prophetic one. I believe it is both. A prophetic faith is one in which individuals and the community speak the truth God wants to communicate, particularly about how God’s ways differ from the ways of the world. Prophetic people model an alternative way of living, more expressive of divine love, truth, justice, peace, and mercy. I believe a faith can only be truly prophetic if it springs from direct (and therefore, mystical) experience of the guidance and teaching of God/the Spirit/Christ.
When Quakerism is all of this, it is a vital force for healing and transformation in the world.
I, too, experience mysticism in a unitive fashion. I have often seen these experiences through the lenses of Native American or Indigenous spirituality – that the earth and all on it are interconnected, and yet there is “that of God in all” (not just humans). Quaker beliefs and practices help me practice equality and peace with this knowledge.
McCormick’s categories of theistic and unitive mystical experience (and the sub-categories of introvert and extrovert for the latter) are useful for logically understanding this phenomenon. In my experience, all of these are experienced simultaneously, like united paradoxes.
Carmel Valley, Calif.
I agree with McCormick’s assessment of The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies (2013). The absence of any direct reference to the mystical Quaker religious experience is noticeable. The Cambridge Companion to Quakerism, edited by Stephen Angell and Pink Dandelion and published in 2018, includes only one reference to mysticism in its index. It is the intention of the editors to present Quakerism to the wider world, and so the core religious and mystical experience that motivates Quakers to do what they do is not delved into.
One corrective to this oversight is Mind the Oneness: The Mystic Way of the Quakers by Rex Ambler, a Pendle Hill pamphlet published in 2020. It “explores Quaker mysticism from the earliest years of George Fox to the present day.” Ambler sees mysticism as part of the search for “ultimate reality” and authentic selfhood: “a finding of oneness against the forces of separation and alienation, always in direct, unmediated experience.”
Ambler does make the caveat that mysticism is not a systematic endeavor. This is because the spiritual searching and the finding of a living truth to be guided by is not a static, step-wise process. For Ambler mysticism may involve protest. The Quaker mystic is often compelled to reconcile the unitive reality of our collective being with the social structures established by governments that attempt to separate (and thus alienate) people from their intuitive and noetic understanding of our common humanity as a part of the created world. To my mind, this is the basis of our equality testimony.
At the conclusion of Ambler’s pamphlet, he hopes that in the future the Quaker mystical vision will continue to be embodied in new and practical ways. Thanks again for raising up a topic so essential to our lives and work as Friends.
I suspect at this time in our collective histories there are profound disintegrations of paradigms within the broad spectrum of Western culture and society aided and abetted by crass consumerism and radical individualism. The old reference points no longer give us direction—the old is dying but not yet dead and the new is coming to birth but not yet born. Perhaps the age of disconnection has run its course and humanity is ready to reach out for a connection that embraces us in mutual relationships grounded in stillness and silence.
One important Quaker thinker on mysticism who has been missed in this discussion is Douglas Steere. He was the Haverford colleague of Thomas Kelly and editor of the latter’s important A Testament of Devotion. He also was well connected personally across denominational and faith boundaries to other mystic leaders—Catholic, Sufi, etc. He saw Quakerism as a lay mystical religious order within the larger ecumenical church. Perhaps for that reason most of his longer work was published outside the world of Quakerism, even though he was deeply involved with Pendle Hill for many years. Steere’s 1984 edited volume Quaker Spirituality was published by Paulist Press, and much of his work on prayer was published by a Methodist press.
Much of what appears to be the short shrift given to mysticism in “official” Quaker publications is due to the fact that those experiencing it often use other language for their experiences. George Fox spoke of “openings.” Issac Pennington and John Woolman also had direct divine “leadings.” There is no shortage of references to these leaders and their clearly mystical experiences in the multiple versions of Faith and Practice.
Kennett Square, Pa.