I didn’t start out a Quaker. I began as a Catholic, which in one respect is as far from Quakerism as can be imagined. My religious education conditioned me to think in black and white terms—of Catholic vs. non-Catholic, or, within the framework of Christianity, of Catholic vs. Protestant. I probably don’t need to tell you who the good guys were. Even when things within the Catholic Church progressed light years in the 1960s—when those of other faiths were referred to as “separated brethren” instead of heathens, infidels, or “lost souls” whose only hope was conversion—still, there was never a doubt who held the trump card. What irony, then, that when I became a Quaker many years later, I was the ultimate Protestant who “protested” not only Catholics, but other Protestants as well.
I grew up taking my Catholic faith seriously, so much so that after high school I entered the Society of Jesus to begin studying to become a priest. Even though I changed course and left the Jesuits after ten years (and the Church a few years later), the essence of Jesuit spirituality has never left me. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits back in 1540, had two mottos for those joining this Company of Jesus. The first was that these companions were to “find God in all things.” For me, that was the mystical or contemplative challenge. The second dictum was that they were to be “contemplatives in action.” Back then if you wanted to give your life to God, the main options were either to become a contemplative (serve God behind monastic walls like the Benedictines), or to serve God in the world (like the Franciscans working with the poor). But Ignatius had a different philosophy; he wanted Jesuits should be both contemplative and active.
It so happened that my ten years in the Jesuits coincided with the upheavals of the ’60s, both within Catholicism as the Second Vatican Council initiated radical church reform, and more broadly, as the nation dealt with controversies like civil rights and Vietnam. I knew very little about Quakers up to that point, but I was pleased to discover how active they were on both fronts. Later, when revisiting American history, I learned how enormous an effect this small religious society had in all kinds of peace and social justice causes that I cheered, from abolition of slavery, to women’s rights, to prison and labor reform, to peace activism and conscientious objection, to gay and lesbian rights, to action on behalf of Earth and the environment.
While I intuited that Quakers must have found solid spirit-grounding to sustain them through all these efforts, it was not until I began to attend meetings for worship in Roanoke, Va., that I realized how rooted Quakers were in contemplation, that it was the secret wellspring of their action. I felt as if I had somehow come full circle, that I was at home again after non-institutionally following my bliss for years. Only this time, I wasn’t constrained by doctrines that no longer made sense to me, by creeds I could not assent to without mental reservation. Instead I was invited to try to live my life according to core principles or ideals, testimonies such as peace, equality, simplicity, integrity, and community.
It’s easy for Quakers like me to grow weary and discouraged when faced with so much that needs doing, when progress in the causes we believe in comes so slowly, when resistance from the prevailing culture is so fierce. But our busy, strategic minds can yield at times, relax from the headlong rush, stand out of the way of something deeper that wishes to speak to us and carry us forward. As the Zen poet Basho Matzuo puts it, “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” Ram Dass once said, “You’ll hear the next message when you’re ready to hear the next message.” To me, this means that we can’t hear what we don’t make the space and time to listen to.
This is why I’m a Quaker, a contemplative activist. I aspire to answer God in everything and everyone I meet.