Who or what is Spirit? Spirit has been showing up lately in Quaker contexts minus the article “a” or “the,” and without any more descriptive modifier like the venerable “holy.” A recent article in Friends Journal included two of the more contemporary usages followed later by one instance of “the Spirit.” Since Spirit sounds kind of buddy-buddy to my ear, I guessed at what might have made the writer switch back to the more old-fashioned name, and I wondered what the choice between the two may have meant, or not meant, for that author.

Just this month I participated in two Quaker events in which Spirit appeared unaccompanied. In the first, I was reminded that Friends will differ in how they speak of the Divine—God, the Light, or Spirit. In the second, I was advised to think about what Spirit was asking me to do.

I bristled. Are Spirit and I on the sort of terms where Spirit’s wish is my command? Have we even been introduced?

Probably we have. I was recently part of a small and for me very uncomfortable meet-and-greet with strangers, and felt that I should stay and say something rather than follow my own desire to flee. I asked a Presbyterian minister friend of mine whether that might have been an experience of the Holy Spirit: I had the sense of a presence near me who wanted something to be said but needed a physical body, in this case mine, in order to say it.

The presence was not commanding but coaxing. It needed a job done, and I was the least unlikely doer of the bunch that had gathered that morning. I was surprised to find that I had warm feelings for the official I was addressing, even though I deeply disliked her before I started talking and immediately afterward. The sympathy I felt for her turned on and off as if there were a switch. Message delivered, I made my polite exit. One of the women at the meeting followed me to the sign-out desk and told me, “I’m glad you said that.” I nodded my thanks and hurried to my car to shed my angry tears in private.

My young friend, the minister, said she thought that experience qualified and added that it made her think of angels. She knows I’m religious but not a believer—not a theist to use a more technical term.

That probably explains some of what makes me so uneasy when I hear or read about Spirit. I worry that Spirit is really God in some sort of witness protection program, protection from people like me. Otherwise, why would I care? After all, wasn’t it the scope for new ideas and insights and inspirations that drew me to Friends in the first place 50 years ago?

Over those years, I’ve come to worship a combination of abstractions rather than a being. It’s to that glowing conglomerate of virtues, and to the people in whom I see it operating, that I look for guidance and strength. I’ve come to think of my object of worship as the product of my particular mind and other people’s gods as equally homemade, if not equally compelling to me. What would I lose if I got on board and decided to call that Spirit?

I’m afraid I’d lose my sense of responsibility for my own actions and inactions and thoughts and allegiances. I persist in imagining myself among Friends but nevertheless, as the old song says, walking this lonesome valley by myself, since nobody else can walk it for me. And unless I’m very persuasive, I can’t walk it for somebody else.

I want to call “foul” when anybody says firmly that God, or Spirit, wills this or that. I’m uneasy when somebody brings a big dog to a struggle that I think ought to be fought hand-to-hand. I think if somebody can’t persuade another person that something is right or wrong without introducing a divine ally into the conversation, maybe the message just isn’t strong or convincing enough on its own terms.

Spirit seems to have assumed a major office among Friends these days. Does it matter whether we know the nature of whom or what we put in that office? Maybe not, but on the other hand, remember that other big election we had lately in which a relative unknown won. All those ongoing surprises! Maybe it’s the aftershocks of life with the current Caesar that make me anxious to know more about Spirit.

Ann Birch

Ann Birch is a member of El Paso (Texas) Meeting; she is an academic reference librarian, grandmother, and actor in local theater.

2 thoughts on “Spirit?

  1. The common element I experience in our unProgrammed Quaker Meeting is that we ask to be led, we listen, we get a message, we act on it, and we like the result. How that’s done is probably different for everyone there, Christian, Buddhist, Pagan/Wiccan/Pantheist, or empiricist (“I do it and it works”).

    The label is at best a marker on the map, it’s not the territory. Merton called “it” the “inner spirit infused with God” and asserted we all have that available to us and that it is the ultimate moral authority. And even that is just more detail on the map, not the territory.

    We are also aware that one’s leading is for one, not for all, until tested and found to be so. Spiritual discernment both broadens and sharpens our leadings.

    Worship for us means the act of listening, however accomplished, to that place beyond words, however named and conceptualized, with an open heart and mind.

    Practice leads to progress. Many of us have had various mystical experiences common among Friends, for example watching oneself give a message and then being unable to remember what was said. As the yoga teachers of old caution, these are only side-effects of spiritual practice, neither targets nor stopping places.

    My leading in the time of our current Caesar — a time I saw coming 50 years ago as a poll watcher in Nashville — is that we need to reach out, frequently and regularly, to those unlike us with compassion, tenderness, and with hearts opened to listen. That message has not been met with resounding hallelujah’s in my spiritual community. “Spirit” (by whatever name, or in my case for internal use, no name) is very firm on this, however, and has the usual wry comments as I half-contemplate pulling a Jonah (but avoiding boats during the process).

    I am grateful for your sharing, reminding us of the impossibility of disregarding Spirit (by whatever never-complete label or conceptualization).

    Hank Fay

    Member, Berea Friends Meeting (SAYMA)

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