When I first discovered Quakerism, I was living a life that was, quite frankly, “SPICE-free,” although not without savor.
My husband and our two small children and I were living in a large crumbling Victorian heap. I was hopeless at keeping ahead of the chaos and pandemonium of the pre-K set, and was equally useless at keeping ahead of the general decay that threatened to bring our house crashing about our ears. My husband would ascend daily to the rarefied world of grownups and wage earners, leaving me in the extremely sticky trenches to hold sway over howling children, runaway sippy cups, reeking diapers, and crumbling horsehair plaster. Inside the pink walls of the house, it was a desperate minute-by-minute struggle for order and sanity. Outside, I attempted to project an air of effortless control, a once-and-future career woman, temporarily sidelined for the benefit of her two little Nobel laureates-in-training.
Is it any wonder that I decided “This is for me” as I settled myself into blessed silence on a clean, uncluttered wooden bench (my children blessedly handed over without a second thought to the strangers in the nursery)?
Not too many First Days passed before I was spending meeting for worship happily fantasizing about the new Quaker me. This future me would be serene and peaceful. My home would be immaculate, my son will have somehow shed his hellion ways to become a gentle child, and my daughter will have miraculously weaned herself from the electronic babysitter. I had even figured out a good place to hide a runaway slave, should one come my way. (My husband obdurately remained an Episcopalian because not even my fertile imagination could turn him into John Woolman.)
I would return from meeting for worship determined to be a model Quaker, or at least what I imagined one to be. Like many neophytes to Quakerism, I subscribed to the “cafeteria” approach to the testimonies—only putting the ones on my tray that I was hungry for. Simplicity was to be the entrée, with sides of equality and community. I felt obliged to help myself to a big helping of integrity even though I knew I would leave most of it on my plate. Peace looked delicious but I didn’t even kid myself that I would be able to swallow it—my digestion was just not up to the task.
Needless to say, this approach did not work. I remained as hungry as ever. At home, waiting for me, was my unavoidable reality—the actual mess as well as the psychic mess—the me I had spent years creating, the one I now desperately wanted to escape.
This was all terribly discouraging, and I began to wonder if I “had what it took” to be a Quaker. Like countless learner Quakers before me, I had imagined a suit of Quaker clothes and tried to dress myself in it. I did not realize that what I required was not a makeover, but a total inward transformation, and that that transformation could only be wrought by God.
Slowly, in the cleansing silence, as my heart was broken open and the deepest recesses of my soul were exposed to the refining fire of the Light Within, I became aware that I was attempting to enjoy the fruits of the Spirit before I had learned to be obedient to the Spirit. While the material chaos of my life might have been indicative of my lack of internal simplicity, I couldn’t bring about that necessary internal change by purging my possessions or becoming a better housekeeper. Likewise, being nicer to my neighbors or refraining from maligning people with whom I disagreed politically would not necessarily make me an instrument of peace on this Earth.
To the disinterested observer, not much appears to happen during an unprogrammed Quaker meeting for worship. Indeed, few of us, when we first begin attending meeting, have any idea of the life-changing consequences of intentional Spirit-filled silence. Without the minute-by-minute distractions of our external lives, we are forced to confront all that is within us, both the good and the bad—the weakness and the folly, the noble intentions and the messy emotions, the valor and the cowardice.
While I dared to hope for an authentic encounter with God, I was happy, as an attender, to merely settle for an hour of peace and quiet once a week. This was not to be: I was brought face-to-face with myself, and there was no escape. I discovered that if I was searching for a shortcut to serenity, I had come to the wrong place. Indeed, like that blackguard Saul, I had embarked upon my own road to Damascus, where I have had to learn the true extent of my blindness and my pride before I could find in the deepest recesses of my heart the testimonies that Quakers so value.
According to the biblical account, the revelation that transformed Saul into the apostle Paul was instantaneous and life-changing. For me, it has been much slower. I am now into the 18th year of my journey, and I have had to be cast down by the roadside more than once to learn the true nature of my blindness and to accept that humility that lies at the heart of “being born again”. Happily and indispensably, like Paul, I have had fellow travelers who have helped me up and led me by the hand when I was unable to see the way. I have learned the testimony of community by discovering through painful experience that I need community as much, if not more, than community needs me.
My blindness began to lift the day I read Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matt. 6:22). In that verse I found the essence of simplicity. John Woolman expressed it in this way: “As I lived under the Cross, and simply followed the Openings of Truth, my Mind, from Day to Day, was more enlightened.”
My task was not to attempt to create a new Quaker me: it was, simply, to be faithful to the promptings of the Divine. I was to order my life so that my eye remained fixed, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “on the simple truth of God.” From that, all testimonies flow, which are, in reality, just one testimony: to be a channel of God’s love in the world.
Focusing so intensely on the testimonies is a relatively modern phenomenon among Friends and is, I believe, a consequence of the “secularization” of Quakerism. Certainly, among Liberal Friends, it is much easier (and safer) to talk about the testimonies than it is to talk about God or “living under the Cross.” Yet, in my experience, trying to separate the testimonies from the divine wellspring is to set myself up for failure and to settle for so much less than the “abundant life” promised by Christ.
This is not to say that trying to follow the testimonies through the outside-in approach is not worth the effort. Of course it is. We start on our quest with a real longing for God and that longing is often expressed through a concerted effort to be a better people. But this is just the beginning of the journey—our soul’s desire to return home. By trying to “achieve” the testimonies on our own, we are insisting on being in control of the process, hauling along our own agendas and other freight. This is why so many noble causes, begun with such good intentions and hope, founder on the rocks of ego.
Slowly, over the years, I have come to recognize that we are all born into the world with the “testimonies” already planted deep within us as our God-given birthright. The heartfelt desire for peace and clarity, the love of our fellow humanity, the yearning towards truth, the longing to live in unity with each other and all of Creation are, in fact, “that of God within us.” Our task, with the guidance of the Spirit, is to peel away the layers so that we can each claim that birthright.
I am now very comfortable in my Quaker identity. That does not mean that I live in perfect simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. It means, in the words of John Woolman, that I “labor in the love of the Gospel, according to the measure received.” Even as I fail almost daily to live into my birthright, I know that God is leading me onwards, gently and patiently, slowly transforming my inner landscape so that I can, according the measure I have received, be a channel for Divine Love in the world.
I am still living in the crumbling Victorian heap, although it is crumbling somewhat less these days. I still have too many possessions and no amount of Quakerism will ever make me a good housekeeper. My children have grown up and are now muddling their own way through life, and my wonderful husband is still an Episcopalian. And, yet, I am living a life of joy and abundance such as I never imagined when I first crossed the threshold of my Quaker meeting. I find that I no longer carry such a heavy load of internal worldly freight. With God’s grace, I have been able to cast off much of the complexity that prevented me from seeing with a single eye. And, when I am not absolutely furious with people, I love humanity in a way I was unable to before.
Each day when I sit down at my desk, I read these words from Thomas Kelly:
Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time, and makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. [God] is at the helm. And when our little day is done, we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well.
And it is.
The original print version of this article mis-attributed the final quote to John Wilhelm Rowntree. It actually comes from Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion.