Saturday, 31 October 2015


"How can the people of Ordsall, where I work, become our neighbours, our sisters and our brothers, especially when we do not know them personally?... come and meet the people in Ordsall with me. You will sense inequality tangibly; you will become aware of the huge range of opportunities which you have and they do not; you will understand the struggle to make ends meet, the problems of debt, ill-health, premature ageing and death, and the hopelessness which is the experience of many."
(Jonathan Dale, Quaker faith & practice 23.50)

One of the striking features of the Quaker faith & practice chapter on 'Social Responsibility', is that this passage by Jonathan Dale is one of very few that emphasise the importance of personal relationship with people experiencing poverty and exclusion.

By contrast, most of the chapter reflects a set of assumptions about Quakers' distance from the people who are represented as the objects of our concern and solicitude. This 'top-down' perspective assumes that we are the ones with the capacity to provide solutions to the problems faced by those who are less fortunate and less able to help themselves. This is, of course, a common attitude among socially privileged groups, and it represents a long-standing pattern in Quaker thought and practice since the 18th Century, when Friends first became a predominantly bourgeois movement.

Many of these sentiments are expressed in terms of 'principles' that should be applied to the reform of society, such as the section on 'Foundations of a true social order' (23.16) which includes aspirational statements such as:

“Mutual service should be the principle upon which life is organised. Service, not private gain, should be the motive of all work.”

Britain Yearly Meeting is currently working towards an updated version of these principles, in order to produce a new 'Foundations of a true social order' document for our times. This seems to me not the most helpful way of reflecting on our role in fulfilling the Spirit's leadings in the world.

One of the problems with this approach is that no society is, or can be, founded on abstract 'principles'. Actual human societies are built of relationships. These are principally the power relationships that determine who has access to resources and opportunities, as well as who determines the limits of acceptable public discourse. But there are also relationships of solidarity and co-operation both within and between different social groups. Rather than continuing to base our thinking about social testimony on inventing principles for what society should be like, it might be more constructive to focus on relationships, and specifically the possibilities for solidarity between groups with unequal access to power and resources.

Much of our current thinking about Quaker social testimony is modelled on the movement for the abolition of slavery. In some ways this is perhaps an unfortunate starting point, because abolitionism (at least in the UK) is largely an example of a movement that was carried out for and to African slaves, by campaigners who in most cases had no personal contact or relationship with them at all.

By contrast, the various 'theologies of liberation' that have emerged since the 1970s in the Catholic and Protestant churches have demonstrated that the most creative insights are not derived from detached academic analysis and philanthropy. Instead, they arise from the first-hand experience of people who are victimised by power and those who live in relationship with them. They have taught us that relationship with people who are excluded is sacramental. It leads us into conflict because it gives a view of the world from the perspective of those who do not count. The gift of personal relationship is the recovery of this prophetic perspective. It is a challenge to our own identity, as well as to the common Quaker attachment to a non-conflictual world-view.

An alternative 'liberationist' model for Quaker thought and practice might focus more deliberately on the example of Friends who have intimate personal experience of social inequality and injustice; whether as members of excluded groups themselves, or through living and working closely with them, in relationships of shared risk and mutual aid. These are relationships of solidarity rather than charity, learning from and struggling alongside each other instead of 'helping'. There is a rich tradition of Friends who have lived solidarity in this way, only a very few of whom are represented in Quaker faith & practice, such as Dorothy Case (23.34), Stephen Henry Hobhouse (23.51), Joan Frances Layton (23.60) and Jonathan Dale.

There are many other contemporary Friends and meetings engaged in this faithful, long-term 'being with' excluded and victimised people. In our own area meeting there are Friends who have long-lasting friendships with refugees, prisoners and homeless people. There are also Friends who have lived through exile, poverty, homelessness and imprisonment themselves. We need to hear these voices, and the insights that they can bring us, in order to discern our calling as a community of faith to participate in the healing of the world.

Have you experienced relationships that have given you new understanding of God's purposes?  Has your own experience of exclusion or injustice given you insights to share with the wider Quaker community?

This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. Next month's post will be a response to Chapter 3: General counsel on church affairs. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life's Afternoon

Photo: Eric Sheppard
We must be confident that there is still more ‘life’ to be ‘lived’ and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press ‘towards the goal of their high calling’. They cease learning, cease growing; they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, not by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom.
(Evelyn Sturge, 1949, Quaker faith & practice 21.45)

The passage from adolescence to adulthood is a familiar life-challenge. For most of us it involves discovering a sense of identity, establishing ourselves in the world of work, finding a partner and creating a family. For some, the challenge of adulthood includes pursuing the ambition to make their mark on the world, to succeed in a career or to 'make a difference', perhaps following a sense of calling or vocation.

Later in life there arrives the invitation to a second passage that is less well-charted. We approach this when we begin to recognise that the future is no longer open to endless possibilities. This is the life we have ended up with; this is the marriage or divorce or single life that we have made. It is now too late to have chosen a different direction, lived a different life and become a different person. We realise that we will now never achieve most of our early ambitions; that even our successes turned out not to bring the kind of fulfilment we had expected. This is the beginning of the transition to what is sometimes known as a 'second adulthood'.

It is at this point, perhaps, that so many men and women 'give up and resign from life.' Others attempt to fight against the failure of their hopes by redoubling their efforts to become more successful, or searching for a different, more satisfactory partner. On the verge of the second adulthood, all the life that we have left unlived clamours for our attention. We may be tempted to fight against it by clinging tightly to the same strategies and ideals that have guided us so far, when life is asking of us something very different.

Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life... worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon according to the programme of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.
(Carl Jung, Psychological Reflections, 1953)

This stage of life brings many people to a Quaker meeting for the first time; disillusioned with their former identities and on a journey of inward discovery. For some, it is a path out of some form of fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, that has occupied all their energies and provided a strong sense of purpose for their adult life so far.

Dogmatic thinking represents a strong temptation for many people in the first half of life, as they struggle to forge a strong sense of self and to find a way of making a mark on the world. Fundamentalist religious beliefs, political ideologies or dogmatic rationalism all demand that we exclude parts of our experience from awareness. They require us to be righteous and right-thinking, to deny everything in us that is mysterious and subversive, and all the ways that the world fails to match up to the creed's authorised narrative. The longer we try to live up to these demands, the more denied and unacknowledged experience we accumulate, and the greater the effort needed to defend an increasingly fragile world view. Eventually, if the weight of contradictory reality becomes too great to sustain, we face the collapse of our former certainties and the call to a new, more inclusive understanding of reality.

We are challenged to discover who we are when we find that we are not the person we tried to be. If we are patient and compassionate with ourselves, and are fortunate to have friends who can listen to everything in us that we find hard to acknowledge, we may come to accept our failings and darkness as indispensable to living on the far side of disillusionment.

You finally discover that it is not good to spend your life trying to be good and aligning yourself with the virtuous people of the world. It might be better to avoid that divided self altogether and instead simply live with compassion for yourself and others. You are not perfect and you never will be.
(Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, 2004)

The Quaker way offers a path of spiritual discovery that moves in the opposite direction to all forms of ideological thinking. It is based on the practice of openness to reality; developing sensitivity and responsiveness to the subtle movements of the inward Guide. The Quaker meeting for worship offers a practice for developing the awareness of what is, rather than insisting that reality conform to our ideas of what it should be. It is an opportunity to sink down to the Seed of presence within us, to recognise that we are engaged in the mysterious process that Thomas Moore calls 'incubating your soul, not living a heroic adventure' (ibid).

Abandoning the dream of 'aligning yourself with the virtuous people of the world' does not mean giving up any attempt to have a positive influence or to challenge those things that need changing. But without so much ego invested in our work we may act differently, and with fewer unwanted side-effects. Those who have discovered their own limitations and mixed motives don't need to use their actions to constantly prop up a fragile sense of self. They are freer to act with detachment from results; to respond from compassion rather than frustration, and to reach out to people whom they are no longer inclined to treat as enemies. This is the place of deepening practical wisdom expressed by Thomas Merton in his famous letter to the young peace activist Jim Forest during the Vietnam War:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell you the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.

The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them, but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.

The next step in the process is for you to see that your thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

(Thomas Merton, Letter to a Young Activist, 1966)

How have you experienced the passage into a second adulthood? Have you discovered a way through disillusionment into the place where you are 'open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it'?

This post is a response to the Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. Next month's post will be a response to Chapter 23: Social responsibility. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Light, Seed and Guide

When Quakers talk about spiritual reality, they often produce lists of substitute words, such as 'God, the Divine, the Tao, Goddess, or whatever you call it'. The implication seems to be that all of these terms are synonymous, and the point of the list is to indicate that diverse names and beliefs are equally acceptable, and are all talking about the same thing. The specific connotations of different words are usually downplayed, because the list is a way of signalling our openness to theological diversity, rather than describing our own spiritual experience.

By contrast, the religious language of early Quakers was not concerned with abstract theological gestures, but with communicating real personal experience. Early Friends avoided the tendency of much mainstream Christian theology to try to tie down spiritual reality into neat categories that can be intellectually mastered, independently of our own lived experience. The first generation of Quakers created a shared vocabulary that was extraordinarily rich in symbolism and metaphor, rather than a system of precise theological definitions.

Early Friends used a great diversity of spiritual language, drawing on the rich metaphorical resources of the Bible as well as inventing their own terms, such as 'the Inward Light', 'the Seed', 'the Principle of Life', 'the Guide', 'the Inward Teacher', 'Inward Christ' and many others. This rich vocabulary was not just a list of interchangeable synonyms. The different metaphors expressed the diverse range of personal spiritual experience, and hinted at the multifaceted nature of ultimate reality.

The language used by modern Quakers draws on a much wider range of religious traditions, but our specifically Quaker vocabulary is rather thin by comparison. The most popular modern Quaker religious metaphor is probably that of 'the Inner Light'. The symbolism of light suggests something that reveals and informs. This is, of course, an important aspect of Quaker spirituality, but it is far from the whole of it. Doug Gwyn has contrasted this modern focus on the metaphor of light with the more neglected early Quaker language of the 'seed':

'We speak of the light to describe the revealing, guiding, discerning aspects of God's presence within. By contrast, the language of the seed hints at other aspects, ones we are more likely to avoid. Early Friends wrote of the seed as the power of God, the promise of God, the inheritance of God sown within each human heart. It is sown there in compassion toward us, sown in the hope that each one of us will become a true and faithful child of God. But this seed within germinates and rises to new life only as we sink down to it. The Seed is the power of God's will. While the light reveals God's will to us, lets us know it, the seed is about the power to do it here and now . Or again, while the light inspires in us thoughts that are not necessarily our thoughts; the seed raises a will in us that is not necessarily our will. That implies that there is some kind of death to be encountered in ourselves if we are to know the power of the seed.

That dimension of our spiritual growth is threatening to all of us. We want more light, we want to see more. Then we will make our own decisions. We do not want to give up control. We do not want to subject our will to something beyond us, even if it is something deep within us. Perhaps this is why we do not hear the language of the seed often among Friends today! Yet I find that Friends that want to go deeper, Friends who want to expand the horizons of their faith, end up going elsewhere to find that other dimension. Some leave Friends altogether, feeling that their meeting can't get to that deeper level. But many are able to remain Friends while finding that other dimension through other spiritual disciplines. They go on Buddhist Vipassana retreats, they spend time at Zen Centers, or at Catholic monasteries. They find the rigor of spiritual discipline, the depth dimension, elsewhere, and that's fine. But we have that depth dimension in our own tradition. We need to reclaim it today.'
(Douglas Gwyn, Sink Down to the Seed, 1996)

There are, of course, many other aspects of spiritual experience that call for attentive naming. Another key early Quaker metaphor was that of the 'Inward Guide'. The image of the guide perhaps points us towards an area of experience that links the seed and the light. The guide draws us towards what the light reveals. It creates the willingness to 'sink down to the Seed', to give our consent to the new will that is gradually germinating within us.

I understand this guide not just in the sense of one who shows the way, but also as the one who reveals to us the beauty of the journey, and awakens a desire to follow. It is the voice of the guide that is heard by the prophet Hosea in the Bible; 'So then, I Myself will entice her, I will bring her into the wilderness and speak to her heart.' Hosea (2:14)

The Inward Guide could stand for that aspect of our inner experience that awakens to the beauty of life when it is lived from the seed of God within. Often, the Guide speaks to us through the example of others' lives, revealing the attractiveness of compassion, generosity and courage, and awakening a desire to discover our own potential for these qualities. We have encountered the Guide at those times when the world appears illuminated by the possibility of selflessness and communion; when we sense the promise that 'the world will be saved by beauty' (Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 1868).

True inward transformation is not effected purely by ethical idealism or a sense of duty. It relies on longing desire; a movement of the heart that opens us to the possibilities of a richer, more beautiful and selfless life. People whose hearts are awakened in this way become willing to surrender themselves, to sink down to the seed, to consent to become someone else for other people. Simplifying their lives, sharing their possessions, and even physical risk and hardship become easy and attractive in the course of this movement. They willingly and enthusiastically abandon anything that hinders them from pursuing the 'pearl of great price', the new richness of life that has been revealed to them.

What words or images help to express your experience of spiritual reality? Are there aspects of your spiritual experience that call for new or rediscovered religious language?

Friday, 17 July 2015


One of the most important of the original Quaker insights was that our testimony is what we do. It is not what we say we believe, or what we claim to value that matters, but what we say with our life.

Our testimony is all of our actions; a whole way of life that testifies to the reality of our experience of God. If we encounter spiritual reality and are transformed by it, we will lead a transformed life, and that is our testimony.

The specific actions of Quaker testimony have always been very various, and have also changed over time in response to different situations. For the first Quakers, the most important aspects of their testimony were plain and truthful speech and the refusal to support the established church. Later, our testimony developed in many directions, including opposition to war, anti-slavery, support for refugees and practising equal marriage.

It was only in the 1960s that all of these very diverse kinds of Quaker testimony were first grouped into the familiar list of 'Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace', simply as a convenient way of remembering and explaining them.

Unfortunately, since then we have got into the habit of talking about 'Quaker testimonies' as though they were a list of principles or values that we are supposed to accept and then try (and inevitably fail) to 'live up to'. This makes them into ideas in our heads, that we have to work out how to apply to real life, from the head down. This way of understanding testimonies as a list of values contradicts what is most essential about the Quaker way; that it is a way of practice, rooted in experience, not in principles or beliefs. Our testimony is what we do because we know from our own experience that it is what we have to do. Instead of starting from our heads, it rises up from the ground on which we stand.

Our corporate testimony is all of those actions that we have discerned together as a Yearly Meeting, including the refusal of violence and commitment to peacemaking, speaking truthfully, refusing to participate in gambling or speculation, and working towards becoming a low-carbon community. These aspects of our life together are not a list of rules or principles. The fundamental value of the corporate Quaker testimonies is as a guide to discerning our own leadings. By reminding us of the ways in which Friends have been led in the past, individually and collectively, the testimonies can help to sensitise us to the areas where the inward Guide may be nudging us in our own lives and situations.

Each of us will be led differently at different times in our lives, because each of us has our own experiences, talents and contribution to offer to the world. One of the gifts of being in community is that each of us brings something different, and that none of us has to try to do everything. Through the discernment of the whole gathered community, we are helped to see where our own blind spots and resistances are, to become more aware of the areas where we are less inclined to heed the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. The aim is not to be morally perfect, but simply to become more whole, more true to reality and faithful to the way that the Spirit is moving within us, for our happiness and for the healing of the world.

This post is based on a talk given as part of the Woodbrooke course 'A New Vision of the Quaker Way' in July 2015.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Return within

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 Howgill:

"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 groat 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 labour, 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 organisation 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 armoured ourselves against the inbreaking of the light. The religious path is simply the process of dissolving these defences, 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, journalling, spiritual reading, mindful movement etc 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 othersAdopting 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 labour 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 recognise 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." 
(Mathnawi, 1273) 

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), recognising 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 mun rest me.’ So I tarried here a great while, till my wife cried, ‘We’se all be ruined: what is thee ganging stark mad to follow t’silly 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?