Basic to our Quaker faith is our understanding that everyone has direct access to the living God; each of us can receive divine guidance and leadings of the Spirit. We want to hear and respond faithfully, but doing so is not easy. Human beings are hardwired to seek approval, focus on fear, and conform to the beliefs and norms of our culture. Essential to the Quaker Way are the practices we use to help each other discern the quiet promptings of the Spirit, distinguishing them from all the other inner and outer voices and motivations that crowd our minds and hearts. Discernment practices can help us choose God’s way when it differs from the norms of our culture. To foster genuine faithfulness among ourselves and become the prophetic witnesses we aspire to be, we need to widely develop and practice skills in discernment. Even more essential, we need to help one another clear our hearts and minds of whatever impedes our awareness of the Divine Presence, so we can open to the guidance that wants to shape our lives in counter-cultural ways. If we learn to better help each other live faithfully and make doing so an important part of our community, then we will grow in our ability to discern and respond when the Spirit leads.
Support for Greater Self-Knowledge and Awareness of the Spirit
Many Friends lament that even though members genuinely care for each other, their meetings are not the vibrant spiritual communities for which they long. In some meetings, it is difficult to openly share experiences of God’s presence and guidance, or to speak about the role of Jesus in one’s spiritual life. Even in meetings that welcome spiritual sharing, some members feel the need to refrain from fully expressing the radical nature of their beliefs or the fullness of their experiences. These limitations have caused sadness and disappointment; for some it is a source of intense grief. If we do not have a community in which we can speak about our intimate experiences of the Divine, discuss our faith, and explore the radical nature of our deepest leadings, it is difficult to enter the depths of spiritual life to which we are called. This is true both for individuals and meetings.
Some Quakers find like-minded Friends by reading accounts of the spiritual experiences of others: in Scriptures, in Quaker journals, in spiritual biographies, in historical accounts. Most of us need the accompaniment of contemporaries who also experience the pressures and influences of our current moment and sense the ways that the Spirit is leading us to live and act in our time. We also require the loving companionship of people who can see and respond to us. Members of an intimate spiritual community serve as mirrors for each other; they help us acknowledge both the shadow and the brightness within us, and assist us in distinguishing one from the other.
After making the liberating discovery of the indwelling Divine Presence, the first Quakers were shocked to see their own tendencies toward self-deception. As they recognized the extent to which their society was organized contrary to divine love, truth, peace, and justice, they saw that their conformity to many of society’s norms was a form of resistance to God. The Inward Light not only revealed the truth that God and Christ dwelt within them, but also showed unexpected depths of self-deception and what they called “sin.” This revelation plunged them into the necessity for transformation and purification, a process they described with many metaphors, including the Refiner’s Fire, baptisms, and pruning. In our time we also experience deep inner conflict between our yearnings for truth and faithfulness, and our cravings for social acceptance, status, and comfort.
We often hide from ourselves both the best and the worst within us: our experiences of divine reality; our impulses toward creative innovation, radical truth, and self-sacrificing love; our petty grudges and meanness; our unhealed wounds and sense of alienation; our deep and persistent fears and the projection of them onto others. Intimate, truthful, and loving spiritual companionship is needed to help us see what is actually going on inside. We need communal spaces where we feel safe to reveal, look at, and explore the ways that our fearful ego controls so much of our thinking and behavior. All of us need to wrestle with difficult questions, issues, resistances, and false ideas of limitation and separation. We can and must do a lot of this on our own, but we also need encouragement and support in this difficult work. We need individuals and groups that can hold and nurture us enough that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and speak our hidden truths. This helps us open to God’s healing, and enables us to allow divine love to be expressed and manifested through us in humble, courageous ways.
We need help to know ourselves more fully, and we also require help to recognize the presence and activity of God. In childhood, most of us learned to shut down the spiritual senses by which we perceive the Divine Presence within ourselves and in the world. Our culture teaches us not to pay attention to the divine guidance that comes from within. Giving our attention and credence to the often subtle, humble way that the Spirit makes itself known in our consciousness can feel risky. It is important, therefore, to have encouragement to notice and savor our experiences of divine love, guidance, and healing, however humble they may appear to be. Although Quakerism emphasizes the direct relationship that exists between each person and God, we have always found spiritual companionship helpful, often crucial, in accessing that direct relationship.
Spiritual companionship can take many forms. In spiritual friendships two people talk frankly both about their shadows and about their spiritual experiences. Much of this intimate sharing happens spontaneously in friendships, marriage, and partnerships in which trust and intimacy have developed. It can also take place in mutual spiritual friendships when time is set aside intentionally for this purpose. Some find spiritual companionship and helpful guidance by seeking out someone seasoned in the spiritual life—called an elder, whatever their age. This relationship might be informal and unnamed. Some elders, who may have received support and training in the use of their gifts, call themselves “spiritual nurturers” or name what they do “spiritual nurture” or “spiritual direction.”
Spiritual companionship also takes place in small groups. Spiritual formation programs place participants in groups that meet on a regular basis to share about following a spiritual discipline. Some of these groups continue to meet after the year-long program ends. Other groups study the Bible together or read and discuss books about spirituality. Light groups meet regularly to do an Experiment with Light meditation together and to share what the Light reveals during the meditation. Over time these groups become places in which people can openly and honestly reveal their inner lives to one another and receive helpful spiritual support. Such groups can assist Friends to develop greater awareness of the presence and activity of God within and among us. They also help us grow in discernment skills.
Support for Discernment
Over time Friends have developed methods to help one another sort out the leadings of the Spirit from all other kinds of promptings and motivations. Clearness committees are based on three important assumptions that undergird the Quaker culture of faithfulness: first, that God guides individuals into particular tasks and life circumstances; second, that each person has direct, inward access to divine guidance; and third, that Friends who are spiritually sensitive and listen carefully can sense a genuine leading in another person. Until the 1960s, Friends used clearness processes primarily for the sake of the meeting’s clearness: to discern whether or not an attender was fully prepared to become a member; or whether a couple was truly led to marry and free of entanglements; or to discern about a member’s call or leading to ministry. If a true leading was discerned in these matters, the meeting took the person into membership, married a couple under the care of the meeting, recorded a member as a minister or elder, or issued a certificate to travel in the ministry.
Fifty or so years ago, it became more common for individuals to ask for clearness committees to help them discern about other important decisions, such as taking a new job, moving to a distant location, or following a leading. When the meeting was not being asked to take a matter under corporate care, such committees were usually organized by the individuals themselves. Whether organized by the meeting or by the individual, a clearness committee usually involves a group of three to seven people, including the focus person. People are included who can help the focus person look at the relevant issues from different perspectives, asking questions the person may not already have asked themselves.
The process works best when participants have spiritual sensitivity, listen well, and approach the discernment process prayerfully. It is helpful to include Friends experienced in helping others pay attention to how the Spirit works in conscious and unconscious ways that we often suppress or ignore. During the course of the meeting, the focus person answers questions and listens to his or her own responses. This helps the person to become more aware of the inner voices that come from familial or cultural conditioning, fear, or ego, and notice the inner prompting of the still, small voice of God. A great deal of clarity can come during a two-hour clearness committee meeting. If no clarity comes, the committee may reconvene once or twice before the individual is clear how God is calling.
Support for Faithfulness
A community that teaches its members the spiritual skills needed for a good clearness process has an important tool for supporting the faithfulness of its members and of the community as a whole. Once a meeting recognizes the leading or call to ministry of one of its members and takes that ministry under its care, a committee is often appointed to meet with that member on a regular basis, to provide support, oversight, and ongoing help with discernment as the leading develops over time. Committee members and the meeting as a whole may discern ways that they are called to participate in and support the leading or ministry, including practical and financial support. If we are truly dedicated as a people to doing our part to bring about a human culture based on love, truth, justice, and sustainability, then we will recognize and generously support the ministries that God plants among us.
A meeting that recognizes several leadings or ministries among its members and feels a call to support them may not have enough people-power to provide a separate committee for each one. An individual who desires support for a faithful life of service or witness may not feel the need of formal recognition from the meeting, but still requires support. Today some Friends are participating in groups designed to provide mutual accompaniment, help with discernment, and accountability over time. One model for this is called variously faithfulness groups, peer groups, or mutual accountability groups. These are groups of three to six people who gather on a regular basis, such as once a month. Like a clearness committee, these Friends meet to prayerfully listen to each other and ask discernment questions designed to help one another notice more clearly subtle movements of the Spirit and how God is leading them. Meeting once a month for two hours, a faithfulness group composed of six members can give each person one hour of focus time every three months.
A single hour of prayerful attention, listening, questions, and mirroring may not lead to the same sense of clearness as a two-hour clearness committee meeting, but regular opportunities over time can provide ongoing support with clarity as a leading or faithful service develops step by step. A faithfulness group also provides an opportunity for mutual accountability to what has been discerned in the past. The group can remind its members of their leadings and commitments they have made, and of issues that have been recurring stumbling blocks. Time and again, a faithfulness group can also hold up a mirror to the Light they see shining through their members and provide reminders of the grace they have witnessed in each others’ lives, actions, and words.
When its members provide mutual spiritual companionship and practice the skills of discernment in clearness committees and faithfulness groups, a meeting is better able to discern God’s leading for the whole community during the monthly meeting for business. Many Friends have experienced an occasion when their community reached a sense of the meeting about God’s leading for them. A shift takes place after members of the group let go of their individual ideas and preferences and sense themselves being gathering into unity about a decision. There is often a collective experience of hearts opening or becoming lighter, freer, or “easy.” A sense of peace permeates the group, accompanied by profound silence, or awe, or quiet joy. Such moments may be rare in some meetings. Perhaps this is so because we may not be submitting ourselves to discern the ways God wants to lead us collectively in matters that require sacrifice or great courage. Making faithfulness an important part of our community life will help us grow in our ability to discern and respond to the leadings of the Spirit.
A Community Formed for Faithfulness
In order for Friends to be fully faithful, we need to know ourselves better and become more deeply intimate with God. As a religious society, we have been gradually drifting toward functional atheism. Although we may still speak about God or Jesus and the Inner Light, we have been losing our ability to recognize and trust in the divine reality that is present and active within us and in the world. A single hour of meeting for worship on a Sunday morning, along with committee service, a weekly forum, some fellowship, and a monthly business meeting are not enough to be the Spirit-filled, faithful people we would like to be. More is required. We all need to make regular space in our lives for quiet receptivity to divine love and guidance. Each of us must take time to look within and wrestle with our tendencies toward fear and unfaithful conformity. In order to respond to God’s call, we also need to create spiritual friendships or participate in small groups designed to support growth in intimacy with God and courageous responses to the leadings of the Spirit. As Quakers we have rich resources and many communal structures designed to support faithfulness. Let’s make good use of them and participate more wholeheartedly in God’s loving, healing work in the world.