The goal of the Quaker way is so simple that it can be summed up in one sentence. It is to become completely responsive to the leadings of the Inward Guide. In the beautiful words of Francis
"Return, return to Him that is the first Love, and the first-born of every creature, who is the Light of the world… Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your , convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him."
(Quaker faith & practice, 26.71)
This is all that is needed for our healing and happiness, for the reconciliation of the world and the flourishing of our relationship with the earth. If each person simply became fully responsive to the 'promptings of love and truth' in their hearts, then war, economic exploitation and environmental destruction would be impossible, and the Beloved Community would flourish. This is what all of our Quaker practices, culture and exist for, and the sole test of their validity is whether they are useful for guiding people into this capacity for spiritual attention and responsiveness to the Inward Light.
This way of attentiveness and faithfulness to the Spirit doesn't depend on any specific beliefs, but it can be inhibited by our own actions, our unconscious resistance, or by any belief system that requires us to ignore crucial aspects of our own experience, or to close our hearts to people defined as 'other'. These can include dogmatic rationalism just as much as some religious or political ideologies.
Unfortunately, by the time that we come to adulthood each of us is already to a greater or lesser extent opposed to the Light within us; somehow we have all ourselves against the of the light. The religious path is simply the process of dissolving these , becoming more aware, sensitive and open to the inner guidance that is always available. To anyone who has seriously tried to follow a religious path it is obvious that this is far easier said than done, but there are many practices that can be helpful in this process. I would like to share some of the practices that have been most important for me, and invite you to reflect on your own.
- Making deliberate choices to protect ourselves from mental pollution, overwork, excessive busyness, noise and constant distraction. Taking time to become aware of our own feelings, thoughts and surroundings, and the needs and feelings of those around us.
- Making a regular discipline of one or more practices that focus our intention and attention. A regular practice such as prayer, meditation, , spiritual reading, mindful movement helps to remind us of our intention to return to awareness. Discipline is important, because staying with a practice even when it becomes uncomfortable or boring is often when we discover the aspects of ourselves that we have been hiding from.
- Finding a supportive community and investing in relationships with people who can encourage and challenge us. Friendship is a crucial and often-neglected aspect of the spiritual path, which is too often represented as a solitary, individual task. None of us is strong enough to do it on our own. We need friends around us who can sustain us when we are confused or discouraged, and who are willing to share their questions and struggles.
- Allowing our lives to be shaped by the ethical guidance of a mature tradition, such as the Quaker 'Advices & Queries'. This can help us to avoid falling into some of the most common traps that tend to deaden our empathy for others. Adopting some ethical guidelines doesn't mean striving to fulfill impossible ideals of perfection. Instead, we could see them as supports for the quality of life and consciousness that helps us to stay awake and attentive to the Spirit.
Above all, perhaps, we need to decide not to despair of ourselves; to accept that we are not perfect and never will be, and to forgive ourselves for our failures and inner resistance. The religious path is not a self-improvement project. We do not need to to perfect ourselves, only to return to ourselves, to our capacity to listen and respond to the inward Guide.
All of us have a tendency to become trapped by our own identity, habits and opinions. Many of us carry a burden of hardened attitudes and accumulated habits that seems to weigh us down. Very often, it is only the suffering caused by our own failures that finally breaks through our defences, wakes us up and enables us to turn around. It is the moment when we become conscious of our distance from God, our refusal of the Light, that is the critical opportunity, the blessed season. Perhaps it is only this that will enable us to take our life seriously, to that it is bigger than our own small stories about ourselves, and begin to sense the great mystery of our own life. For the Sufi poet Rumi, it is through failure that we learn to become attentive to the Guide within:
"You know how it is. Sometimes we plan a trip to one place, but something takes us to another.
When a horse is being broken, the trainer pulls it in many different directions, so the horse will come to know what it is to be ridden.
The most beautiful and alert horse is one completely attuned to the rider.
God fixes a passionate desire in you, and then disappoints you. God does that a hundred times!
God breaks the wings of one intention and then gives you another, cuts the rope of contriving, so you'll remember your dependence.
But sometimes your plans work out! You feel fulfilled and in control.
That's because, if you were always failing, you might give up. But remember, it is by failures that lovers stay aware of how they are loved.
Failure is the key to the kingdom within."
Being released from our habit-formed carapace of habits, attitudes and obsessions opens up the possibility of spontaneity in how we respond to the world. This quality of spontaneity is often noticeable among people who are on a path of opening to the Spirit. As a fairly new attender at our Meeting once observed, "the thing about the Quakers I've met is you never know what they are going to say next".
We also need great patience with ourselves (and others), that the habits of inner resistance are often loosened only with the passage of many years. The early Friend Luke Cock could be a model for us of this quality of patience, testifying that:
"I said to my Guide, ‘Nay, I doubt I never can follow up here: but don’t leave me: take my pace, I pray Thee, for I rest me.’ So I tarried here a great while, till my wife cried, ‘ all be ruined: what is thee ganging stark mad to follow Quakers?’ Here I struggled and cried, and begged of my Guide to stay and take my pace: and presently my wife was convinced. ‘Well,’ says she, ‘now follow thy Guide, let come what will. The Lord hath done abundance for us: we will trust in Him.’ Nay, now, I thought, I’ll to my Guide again, now go on, I’ll follow Thee truly; so I got to the end of this lane cheerfully…
My Guide led me up another lane, more difficult than any of the former, which was to bear testimony to that Hand that had done all this for me. This was a hard one: I thought I must never have seen the end of it. I was eleven years all but one month in it."
(Quaker faith & practice, 20.22)
What practices or experiences have helped you to 'return within' to the guidance of the Inward Light? How have you seen the fruits of growing freedom, awareness or spontaneity in your own life?