As spiritual seekers we value our awareness and experience of the Inward Light and of the myriad ways in which we learn to trust that Light throughout our lives. Trust in the Light enables us to express in our practice and daily lives the understanding that grows from this inward experience. The selections that follow tell of our experience as part of a worshipping community of Friends and how we and our service in the world are nurtured by the meeting. Many Friends have written about the relationship of the individual and the monthly meeting in discernment of concerns and leadings and these selections capture the interplay between inward contemplation and outward action. Friends have written eloquently about the ways in which their lives have been kindled and ignited by the divine spirit. Friends have also written of the struggle to find the way and the despair that comes at times. These selections also record the important role that the meeting plays throughout our lives and as we near the end of life.
What brings us fulfillment when we find that attaining wealth and status, by themselves, will not? How do we make sense of the lives we are living? What values can give a satisfying shape and purpose to our lives? Where can we find insights on these questions? With whom can we share this search?
The Religious Society of Friends began with persons (“seekers”) looking for answers to remarkably similar questions. The times were very different, but the spiritual dynamics were much the same. When one of those seekers, George Fox, encountered the Divine directly, he began articulating a new vision of the Christian faith. He shared that vision with other seekers, and a new religious movement—Quakerism—was born.
That movement and its members were characterized by three vital features. First: an understanding rooted in experience, that it was both possible and necessary to have an immediate, direct relationship with the Divine, with God, that would give one’s life meaning, purpose, and wholeness. Second: a fervent desire to live out, to fully embody these spiritual insights—“the Truth”—they had discovered in that relationship. And third: a recognition that they needed one another, and so a commitment to form and sustain the spiritual communities necessary to live such a life of faith and integrity.
There is an unfortunate tendency among some Quakers to separate prayer and action rather than to integrate them. … [We can] re-imagine prayer as a kind of inward activism and political work as a kind of outward prayer. Of course, this is a reversal of our usual assumption, that prayer is always an inward activity and peace work is always outward. … In considering phrases like “inward activism” and “outward prayer,” we were challenged to bring the best of activism into our inward lives and the best of prayer into our outward action.
By ethical mysticism I mean that type of mysticism which first withdraws from the world revealed by the senses to the inward Divine Source of Light, Truth, and Power, and then returns to the world with strength renewed, insight cleared, and desire quickened to bind all life together in the bonds of love. These bonds are discovered by this process of withdrawal and return because the one inward Divine Source is itself the creative unity which seeks to bind all life together. But there is no necessary chronological order in the world of spirit. It may be that the desire to penetrate to the creative unity in the depths of the soul was first aroused by finding it in the outward affairs of daily life.
Howard H. Brinton
Let us recognize that while spiritual life in its externals often presents us with a bewildering diversity, the saints of each spiritual tradition are practically indistinguishable from each other in their lives, their way of being. Though their theological concepts may be different, their feelings and conduct are amazingly similar. They dwell in love, and God dwells in them because God is love. Increasingly in this modern age, the capacity to apprehend the One in the many constitutes the special responsibility of those who would dwell in love. May this capacity to apprehend the One in the many, and the love it expresses, be the special gift of the friends of Jesus to people of faith everywhere!
Daniel A. Seeger
We see that the teachings of [the] divine spirit have been the same in all ages. It has led to truth, to goodness, to justice, to love. Love was as much held up among [the] old [Testament] writers, [the] old religious teachers, and as clearly set forth, as in the later days. Their testimony fell upon ears that heard not, upon eyes that saw not, because they had closed their eyes, shut their ears, and hardened their hearts. They had substituted something else for this divine light; this word, which … Moses declared to his people was “nigh unto them, in the mouth, and in the heart.” … Believe not, then, that all these great principles were only known in the day of the advent of the Messiah to the Jews—those beautiful effects of doing right.
And as many candles lighted, and put in one place, do greatly augment the light and make it more to shine forth so when many are gathered together into the same life, there is more of the glory of God, and his power appears, to the refreshment of each individual, for that he partakes not only of the light and life raised in himself, but in all the rest.
The resurrection, however literally or otherwise we interpret it, demonstrates the power of God to bring life out of brokenness; not just to take the hurt out of brokenness but to add something to the world. It helps us to sense the usefulness, the possible meaning in our suffering, and to turn it into a gift. The resurrection affirms me with my pain and my anger at what has happened. It does not take away my pain; it still hurts. But I sense that I am being transfigured; I am being enabled to begin again to love confidently and to remake the spirit of my world.
S. Jocelyn Burnell
Something is happening around me: the dark is less dark, the silence is less deep. Even the air is changing. It is damper, sweeter. Morning is at hand. Light will soon come flowing over the edge of the world, bringing with it the day. What a gift! Whether wrapped in streamers of color or folded in tissues of mist, it will be mine to use in ways that I can foresee and in those that are unexpected. The day will make its own revelation, bring its own challenge; my part will be to respond with joy and gladness.
When we laid our tools down at the appointed hour … , it was then I realized I had been in that place of “no time,” often referred to as “God’s time.” Had it really been five hours? It was as though I had stepped into a current that carried me and sustained my work. Its flow guided my movements. And throughout all this I was … powered by the palpable synergy of this centered group of artists. It was a day to be remembered.
I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
Attributed to Stephen Grellet
Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and, so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable, that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.
A good end cannot sanctify evil means nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it. … It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God’s errands as it is to palliate them with God’s name…. We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
All sorts of things “work” for us … as St. Paul declared. Not only does love “work,” and faith and grace, but tribulation “works,” and affliction, and the seemingly hostile forces which block and buffet and hamper us. Everything that drives us deeper, that draws us closer to the great resources of life, that puts vigor into our frame and character into our souls, is in the last resort a blessing to us, even though it seems on superficial examination to be the work of an “enemy;” and we shall be wise if we learn to love the “enemies” that give us the chance to overcome and to attain our true destiny. Perhaps the dualism of the universe is not quite as sharp as the old Persians thought. Perhaps too the love of God reaches further under than we sometimes suppose. Perhaps in fact all things “work together for good,” and even the enemy forces are helping to achieve the ultimate good that shall be revealed “when God hath made the pile complete.”
Rufus M. Jones
The authentic life of the spirit must know a re-birth, a kindling from the Source, a release from the demands of the self into the knowledge of the truth which sets men free. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” This touch of grace upon the spirit, this sense of God’s presence, this re-birth into new life may come when we least expect it, may come in most unorthodox ways and under conditions we have not foreseen. But if it is deeply desired, ardently sought and steadfastly prayed for it will come, and we shall have been reborn into God’s love, and have made a great and decisive step toward life with Him. For most of us this is not a cataclysmic experience—nor is it desirable that it should be; but whether it results from a decision, a commitment consciously made, a gradual growth or a mystical experience we shall know that our religion has “come alive.”
Rachel R. Cadbury
What was perhaps most characteristic of early Friends was that they thought of their testimony not in terms of words or propositions, but in terms of what they did, the way they lived their lives. … Testimony for them was to ‘do truth.’ What we now call ‘the testimonies’ were early Friends’ actions in the world, bearing witness to the truth they had experienced. Their testimony was an outward and visible manifestation of an inward transformation. This truth affected all aspects of their lives.
How many of us are open to, and expectant of, spiritual encounter? How many of us are open to the possibility of transformation? Are we prepared to take the risk of being transformed as Margaret Fell was, or are we frightened of spiritual experience? If we are not open for spiritual transformation, what are we doing in attaching ourselves to a meeting? We have lost a sense of collective purpose when the spiritual is optional. If we have lost the experiential basis of our life together, we have lost our rootstock.
Ben Pink Dandelion
As Friends we believe that love is the unifying force in human relations. Let us understand what brotherly love is and what it is not. Love is not self-seeking; it is self-giving. Love does not try to make up a deficiency in that of God in another from an overabundance of divinity in ourselves; it opens us to the divine Light in him and rejoices in it. Love does not mean agreeing on all questions of belief, values, or rules of conduct; it means accepting with humility and forbearance such differences as cannot be resolved by open and patient give-and-take. Love does not recreate our brother in our image; it recreates us both in relation to each other, united like limbs of one body yet each distinctly himself.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
True godliness don’t turn men out of the world, but enables them better to live in it and excites their endeavors to mend it; not hide their candle under a bushel, but set it upon a table in a candlestick.
There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation so ever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression. Using ourselves to take ways which appear most easy to us, when inconsistent with that purity which is without beginning, we thereby set up a government of our own and deny obedience to him whose service is true liberty.
…As Quakers we are often preoccupied with global issues and as young people we are only too often preoccupied with the pressures of work. [At Junior Yearly Meeting] we had the space to stop, to listen and to think about ourselves. …
Through our discussions we recognised our anxieties and fears. We realised that we are individuals and that we are alone but, as part of a loving community, to be alone does not necessarily mean to be lonely. We discovered that it is acceptable to have confused feelings, to be different, to do things our own way. We should not feel guilty when we are wrong, and appreciate that there must be room for mistakes. There are people who want us to be exactly as we are.
Epistle of Junior Yearly Meeting
Quakers from the whole world await a message of hope. But how shall they hear? The presence and work of the Spirit is much more important than our words and forms of worship. That within us should also be transformed outward.
Some of us place special emphasis on the historical Jesus Christ as our personal Savior; others on the Light within everyone, which is interpreted by some of us as the Holy Spirit, and by some as the Christ principle; while others emphasize the universal spirit of God. We see these as three aspects of the one God and rejoice in our unity.
As we love one another, we find unity and become peacemakers. The barriers that separate us are broken, as Jesus broke the barrier between the Samaritans and the Jews through the conversation between him and the Samaritan woman. We should support each other in the diversity of our witness. We are one world trying to live our lives as Christ did.
We will not all be called to witness in the same way, but we should not assume that we have the luxury of waiting to act until we have it completely figured out. We must make a first step towards believing in the radical imagination of newness that boldly critiques the current paradigm. We can’t be too worried about being polite; if we engage in fundamental paradigm shifts we will inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. It will be hard work. But it will also be deeply healing—the kind of work that can break through the numbness.
In prayer, the seeds of concern have a way of appearing. Often enough, a concern begins in a feeling of being personally liable, personally responsible, for someone or some event. With it there may come an intimation that one should do some little thing: speak to some person, make an inquiry into a certain situation, write a letter, send some money, send a book. Or it may be a stop in our minds about some pending decision, or a clear directive that now is not the time to rest, or an urge to stay home when we had been meaning to be away; it may be that no more than this will be given us. But this seed is given us to follow, and if we do not follow it, we cannot expect to see what may grow from it. Seeds, not fruit, are given in prayer, but they are given for planting.
Douglas V. Steere
I have sometimes been asked what were my reasons for deciding on that refusal to register for war duties that sent me to Holloway Jail twenty-two years ago. I can only answer that my reason told me that I was a fool, that I was risking my job and my career, that an isolated example could do no good, that it was a futile gesture since even if I did register my three small children would exempt me. But reason was fighting a losing battle. I had wrestled in prayer and I knew beyond all doubt that I must refuse to register, that those who believed that war was the wrong way to fight evil must stand out against it however much they stood alone, and that I and mine must take the consequences. The “and mine” made it more difficult, but I question whether children ever really suffer loss in the long run through having parents who are willing to stand by principles; many a soldier had to leave his family and thought it his duty to do so. When you have to make a vital decision about behaviour, you cannot sit on the fence. To decide to do nothing is still a decision, and it means that you remain on the station platform or the airstrip when the train or plane has left.
Those of us known as “activists” have sometimes been hurt by the written or spoken implication that we must be spending too little time on our spiritual contemplative lives. I do know many atheists who are active in improving the lot of humankind; but, for those of us who are Friends, our attendance at meeting for worship and our silent prayerful times are what make our outer activity viable and effective—if it is effective.
I have similarly seen quieter Friends hurt by the implication that they do not care enough, because they are not seen to be “politically active.” Some worry unnecessarily that they may be doing things of a “less important” nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God. … I suggest that we refrain from judging each other, or belittling what each is doing; and that we should not feel belittled. We cannot know the prayers that others make or do not make in their own times of silent aloneness. We cannot know the letters others may be writing to governments. … We were made differently, in order to perform different tasks. Let us rejoice in our differences.
Ever since I first came among Friends, I was attracted to the testimonies as an ideal. I wanted to belong to a church which made the rejection of warfare a collective commitment and not just a personal option. I admired a simplicity, a devotion to equality, and a respect for others which reflected what I already knew of Christ. In a deceitful world I warmed to those who did not swear oaths and strove to tell the truth in all circumstances. But this was a beginning in the spiritual life. The seed that was sown in my mind and my politics struck root in my soul and my faith
The choice of the word “testimony” is instructive. The testimonies are ways of behaving but are not ethical rules. They are matters of practice but imply doctrines. They refer to human society but are about God. Though often talked about, they lack an authoritative formulation. …
A “testimony” is a declaration of truth or fact. … It is not an ejaculation, a way of letting off steam, or baring one’s soul. It has a purpose, and that is to get other people to change, to turn to God. Such an enterprise, be it in words or by conduct and example, is in essence prophetic and evangelical.
What is the distinction between testimonies and principles? To give personal testimony in a court of law it to report one’s own experience. Speculation and sweeping generalization are out of order; one must only state that which one directly knows. Friends’ testimonies reflect a similar understanding—they are not abstract generalizations, but the records of lives lived. … Friends’ testimonies are not judgments of the mind but voices of the heart. … The Peace Testimony exemplifies not principle pacifism but testimony pacifism. It is not a philosophical generalization to be affirmed by intellectual judgment … but, rather, a confession of spiritual surrender and the fruit of that surrender.
I was struck by how well … [Quaker] testimonies agree with scientific practice. …
Scientific practice … embraces our Quaker testimony of Integrity. A scientist must tell the truth as well as he/she can. Scientists may make mistakes, but scientists are not allowed to lie about their observations or their calculations.
Scientific practice agrees well with our Quaker testimony of Community. We discuss our experimental and theoretical work with other scientists in our community. This discussion plays a vital role in our search for scientific truth.
Scientific practice also agrees with our Quaker testimony on Equality in the way that all scientists enjoy equal status in our common search for truth. One of many examples: an unknown young Indian physicist, Bose, wrote to the famous Einstein, who studied and agreed with Bose’s work. Together they developed Bose-Einstein statistics.
…our testimonies are not a pre-packaged set of values. Our spiritual experience, our openness to being led and to living a guided life, leads us to a life we have little choice over. Testimony is the outflowing life we cannot help but lead.
Ben Pink Dandelion
Leading and being led: the words are simple enough. But for Quakers they have their most profound resonance as defining religious experience. Friends speak variously of being drawn to an action, feeling under the weight of a concern, being called or led to act in specific ways. We speak of being open to the leadings of the Light, of being taught by the Spirit or the Inward Christ. Extraordinary claims lie embedded in those phrases. They say that it is not only possible but essential to our nature for human beings to hear and obey the voice of God; that we can be directed, daily, in what we do, the jobs we hold, the very words we say and that our obedience may draw us to become leaders in all spheres of human life—in the professions, arts, and sciences, but also in discovering the ethical, political, social, and economic consequences of following the will of God.
“Concern” is a word which has tended to become debased by excessively common usage among Friends, so that too often it is used to cover merely a strong desire. The true “concern” [emerges as] a gift from God, a leading of his spirit which may not be denied. Its sanction is not that on investigation it proves to be the intelligent thing to do—though it usually is; it is that the individual … knows, as a matter of inward experience, that there is something that the Lord would have done, however obscure the way, however uncertain the means to human observation. Often proposals for action are made which have every appearance of good sense, but as the meeting waits before God it becomes clear that the proposition falls short of “concern.”
When Howard Brinton wrote Friends for 300 Years (1952), which became the standard introductory text to Quakerism in the USA, he offered a list of testimonies, which over time was altered by Friends so that by the 1990s we might be given the list of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality, producing the acronym SPICE. … This listing has a number of effects. One is that we see testimony as consisting only of these principles rather than the whole of our God-led lives. … Secondly, because they are presented as principles, it is easy to imagine that they exist independently of our spiritual experience and the knowledge that there is that of God in everyone, which traditionally has given rise to the way we live in the world. Thirdly, divided up this way into discrete items, they have for some Friends become individually optional. Some Friends may struggle with the peace testimony but be clear on equality; others struggle with simplicity but are strong on peace. … We have recast testimony in terms of individual choice, and our corporate action as ‘good work’ rather than God-led.
Ben Pink Dandelion
A concern is God-initiated, often surprising, always holy, for the life of God is breaking through into the world. Its execution is in peace and power and astounding faith and joy, for in unhurried serenity the Eternal is at work in the midst of time, triumphantly bringing all things unto Himself.
A Quaker social concern seems characteristically to arise in a sensitive individual or very small group. … The concern arises as a revelation to an individual that there is a painful discrepancy between existing social conditions and what God wills for society and that this discrepancy is not being adequately dealt with. The next step is the determination of the individual to do something about it—not because he is particularly well fitted to tackle the problem, but simply because no one else seems to be doing it.
Dorothy H. Hutchinson
My challenge is to keep the wholeness during the hectic daily routines that ensue when we wake up again. I have to practice the simplicity testimony every morning because I am always tempted to check email and fold laundry in between putting on my socks. I have to practice the peace testimony, too, because by 7:40 I feel like yelling at my son, who is often playing with his Legos instead of getting dressed. I have to practice the equality testimony by constantly negotiating with my husband the work load of raising a family, from packing lunches and folding laundry to remembering to call the orthodontist. Most important, I have to continually practice listening for God’s guidance, integrating the discernment tools I used before becoming a parent—silence, solitude, and prayer—with the many ways I feel God touched me through the gift of family.
In all our fervor—in all my fervor—to be doing, have I paid too little attention to the power that lies in being? Do we remember that it is the spirit of our service, the aura that surrounds it, the gentleness and the patience that marks it, the love made visible that compels it, that is the truly distinctive quality that lifts Quaker service above lobbying, above pressure, above coercion, that inspires the doubtful, and reaches the heart of the adversary?
Stephen G. Cary
If we are faithful followers of Jesus, we may expect at times to differ from the practice of others. Having in mind that truth in all ages has been advanced by the courageous example of spiritual leaders, Friends are earnestly advised to be faithful to those leadings of the Divine Spirit which they feel fully assured after mature meditation and consideration they have interpreted truly.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Race Street)
It may surprise some of us to hear that the first generation of Friends did not have a testimony for simplicity. They came upon a faith which cut to the root of the way they saw life, radically reorienting it. They saw that all they did must flow directly from what they experienced as true, and that if it did not, both the knowing and the doing became false. In order to keep the knowledge clear and the doing true, they stripped away anything which seemed to get in the way. They called those things superfluities, and it is this radical process of stripping for clear-seeing which we now term simplicity.
Frances Irene Taber
From time to time … adherence to factual truth can give rise to profound dilemmas for Quaker Peace & Service workers if they are in possession of information which could be used to endanger people’s lives or give rise to the abuse of fundamental human rights. … Some of us are clear that in certain difficult circumstances we may still uphold our testimony to truthfulness while at the same time declining to disclose confidences which we have properly accepted. Such withholding of the whole truth is not an option to be undertaken lightly as a convenient way out of a dilemma. We all accept that ultimately it is up to an individual’s own conscience, held in the Light, to decide how to respond.
Quaker Peace and Service, London Yearly Meeting
But the Loving Presence does not burden us equally with all things, but considerately puts upon each of us just a few central tasks, as emphatic responsibilities. For each of us these special undertakings are our share in the joyous burden of love.
Thus the state of having a concern has a foreground and a background. In the foreground is the special task, uniquely illuminated, toward which we feel a special yearning and care. This is the concern as we usually talk about it or present it to the Monthly Meeting. But in the background is a second level, or layer, of universal concern for all the multitude of good things that need doing. Toward them all we feel kindly, but we are dismissed from active service in most of them. And we have an easy mind in the presence of desperately real needs which are not our direct responsibility. We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.
Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal light search you … for this will deal plainly with you; it will rip you up, and lay you open…naked and bare before the Lord God from whom you cannot hide yourselves. … Therefore give over the deceiving of your souls.
[You are] not to spend time with needless, unnecessary, and fruitless discourses, but to proceed in the wisdom of God: not in the way of the world, as a worldly assembly of men, by hot contests, by seeking to outspeak and overreach one another in discourse, as if it were controversy between party and party of men, or two sides violently striving for dominion … not deciding affairs by the greater vote … but in the wisdom, love, and fellowship of God, in gravity, patience, meekness, in unity and concord, submitting one to another in lowliness of heart, and in the holy Spirit of truth and righteousness, all things [are] to be carried on by hearing and determining every matter coming before you in love, coolness, gentleness, and dear unity—I say, as one only party, all for the Truth of Christ and for the carrying on the work of the Lord, and assisting one another in whatsoever ability God hath given; and to determine of things by a general mutual concord, in assenting together as one man in the spirit of truth and equity, and by the authority thereof.
I think I have wasted a great deal of my life waiting to be called to some great mission which would change the world. I have looked for important social movements. I have wanted to make a big and important contribution to the causes I believe in. I think I have been too ready to reject the genuine leadings I have been given as being matters of little consequence. It has taken me a long time to learn that obedience means doing what we are called to do even if it seems pointless or unimportant or even silly. The great social movements of our time may well be part of our calling. The ideals of peace and justice and equality which are part of our religious tradition are often the focus of debate. But we cannot simply immerse ourselves in these activities. We need to develop our own unique social witness, in obedience to God. We need to listen to the gentle whispers which will tell us how we can bring our lives into greater harmony with heaven.
The field of my religious training presupposed a clear definite call to a particular kind of service. I must confess that this has never happened to me. … I have never aspired to a particular job or asked for one; nor have I been “stricken on the road to Damascus” as was Paul and had my way clearly dictated to me from the heavens. The entire course has been a maturing of family and personal decisions. In perspective I should say in all humility that my life has been characterized by an inadequate, persistent effort to try to find a workable harmony between religious profession and daily practice.
Clarence E. Pickett
We wish we could say that our response to God’s calling was immediate and unequivocal, but in fact there followed several months of indecision, as we struggled with our leading [to travel to and live in Lugula]. We initiated, in a tentative way, the application process through Friends United Meeting, and were encouraged by them to schedule a trip to Indiana for an interview. Finally, five months after Yearly Meeting, we reached clarity, together as a couple: if FUM offered us the position (and we were the only serious candidates), we were prepared to accept. …
That very evening, as we basked in the warm glow of our newly found clearness, we received a phone call … there was no opening, and no need for an interview.
The word “disappointment” does not adequately describe how we felt. Our process of discernment had been slow and gradual but, we felt, genuine. We were left feeling empty, as though we were somehow “in transition”—but transition to what? We had now given up our expectations for the future not once, but twice. Our lives were outwardly the same as before, but we were empty, waiting for a further leading, and not entirely sure when or if it would come.
It took several difficult months, but eventually, reluctantly, we were able to give up the idea that Lugulu was in our future. Then one day, about a year later, a letter came in the mail. … The mission board was asking, almost apologetically, if we would still consider going to Lugulu. Suddenly, we could see the bumpy and circuitous road that we had been traveling for those eighteen months in a larger perspective. God had been asking, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for me?” Now, and only now, were we prepared to answer unequivocally with the prophet Isaiah, “Here we are, Lord. Send us.”
Thomas and Elizabeth Gates
To be a Quaker is not simply to subscribe to doctrines but to be convinced that one has known an ultimate reality which authenticates doctrines. It is to know oneself capable of being taught now by the living Spirit of Truth, capable of receiving vital direction in what one is to do. It is not only to be a follower of the teachings of Jesus but to have met the Inward Christ.
Authority comes from God, and it is recognized by Friends. Both parts are essential: that an individual speak or act or just be under faithful obedience to Divine Will, and that the faith community recognize and acknowledge that the message or action or be-ing is divinely inspired. …
Each of us has the possibility of being anointed and called to speak with authority on occasion. So each of us must be ready to listen and to discern with great care and humility not only our own internal nudges, but the words of each other person present.
Marty Paxson Grundy
When Friends take care of our meeting’s business, we are holding the whole meeting in the Light. We enter into worship and we listen. We listen for God, we listen in our own hearts, and we listen to one another to know what to do. … Friends go out into the world to continue God’s work. They take with them hearts that know love, peace, and unity.
Faith and Play Working Group; Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
At monthly meeting there was a strong sense of unity on the matter—except for one person. (How easy to have ignored this one dissenting voice.) But in view of it, it was agreed to hold a second monthly meeting to reconsider the matter. Because the venue was different (our meetings are not normally “monthly”) a different group of Friends was present, although three of the first meeting were there. The sense of unity was equally strong in the other direction—except for two Friends. It was therefore decided to hold a third “monthly” meeting. By this time feelings were running high and we were each convinced of the rightness of our own viewpoints. Then suddenly Christ’s presence moved in, and in my own case I remembered his words to his disciples, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, that ye have love one for another.” And quite suddenly it seemed more important to love than to be right.
Rosemary M. Elliott
A common misconception about Quaker business process is that a decision can never go forward if one person decides to “stand in the way.” Inactive members, new attenders and non-Friends trying to imitate Quaker process often interpret our principle of unity to mean that each individual has veto power over any decision of the community. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“Standing in the way” is not a right which inheres in paper membership or attendance at meeting for business. It is rather a privilege granted by the community because it believes that the dissent is grounded in spiritual integrity and not in ego or a power trip. We acknowledge that the Friend may have light which the rest of us don’t yet see; we wait in love for the Friend to see our light. We are willing to remain teachable in the trust that the dissenting Friend is also teachable. …
Difficulty arises when some show themselves not to be teachable, as for instance when they attach themselves to an external “party line” which precludes submission to the Spirit. The Meeting may rightly decline to trust such persons. Trust is something which must be earned. Perhaps that is a central meaning of the term “weighty Friend”: one whom the community trusts to “attend to pure wisdom and be teachable.”
As a structure to facilitate discernment of the will of God, the clearness committee partakes of many of the features of a meeting for worship for the conduct of business. Where meetings for business have been assimilated to more secular models, with emphasis on getting through agendas within time constraints, on decision-making rather than discernment, consensus rather than unity, it is helpful to incorporate in the model some aspects of worship sharing.
The crucial element is the establishment of a context of prayerful attentiveness, not just for the beginning and end of the time together but for the entire meeting. Liberal amounts of silence between utterances permits them to be heard with all their resonances and taken below the surface mind. The space between can remove the temptation to revert to discussion or conversation. It can help reinforce disciplined speaking and listening. It can allow what does come forth to arise spontaneously from the Center.
When we seek the sense of the meeting we allow ourselves to be directed to the solution that awaits us. It is a process of surrender to our highest natures, and a recognition that, even though each of us is possessed of light, there is only one Light. At the end of the process we reside in that Light. We have allowed ourselves to be led to a transcendent place of unmistakable harmony, peace, and tender love.
The belief that divinity exists in each human soul dominates the Quaker movement and it is the bedrock of Quaker education. Despite the inevitable compromises and flaws found in every Friends school, Quaker education still seeks to draw out, nurture, and protect the dignity of human personality.
Earl G. Harrison, Jr.
From a student perspective, Meeting for Worship is a time for self-reflection and relational reflection. Unique to Quaker pedagogy is the cultivation of an ongoing habit of personal reflection and shared community reflections. Because Friends have neither doctrines nor dogma, they place most emphasis on the manner in which people lead their lives and treat one another. This aspect, as well as the sense of genuine inquiry, allows young people from all religious traditions (or none) to feel comfortable together during the silence of a Friends school Meeting for Worship.
To the present distracted and broken nation: We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other … but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness, righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace, and unity with God and with one another, that these things may abound.
The foundations of Quaker pacifism are religious. We fully recognize the value of the intuitive recognition of the evil of coercive violence in the individual and national life. The sense of the contrast between the way of war and the way of love shown us in the life of Jesus Christ has compelling force. It is also enlightening to think of pacifism as a corollary of the fundamental Quaker postulate of the Divine Spark in every human being. This fundamental Quaker postulate lays on us the obligation to consider and cherish every human being. It follows, for those who accept the postulate, that they cannot do to human beings the things that war involves. It may follow that they become aware that other sorts of human relations are also evil, such as slavery, economic injustice, inferior status for women, and the results of the traffic in narcotics. …
Quaker pacifism is an obligation, not a promise. We are not guaranteed that it will be safe. We are sure that it is right. We desire to make our individual decisions in harmony with it, and to help our fellows to do so.
Friends Peace Committee, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Race Street)
Whether the experience of Divine companionship comes soon or late, whether it is a sudden realisation of the Indwelling Spirit, the Divine Presence, the Eternal Light Within, the Seed of God in the heart, it becomes increasingly the mainspring of our life on earth and our hope for the life to come. We recognize this as an element of the Divine in every human heart, however denied and stifled and concealed; it is something to which we can appeal from the innermost depths of our being; an inward experience of God in which we ourselves must live.
From that inward relationship, the testimonies which generations of Friends have been challenged to maintain take on a deeper meaning. One of the most revealing passages in George Fox’s Journal is that in which he records his answer to the officials who offered him his liberty, if he would accept a commission and “take up arms for the Commonwealth against the King.” He did not say that he believed war to be wrong, or that in his opinion brute force never settled anything; he went straight to the heart of the matter and said that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” To uphold such a testimony involved a dedicated life. The Quaker peace testimony is more than a repudiation of war, and more than a denial of the use of force; it is a way of life to which we must be faithful in small things as well as in great, in our human relationships, our business and social activities, and in the life and witness of our meetings.
Elfrida Vipont Foulds
If a concerned Quaker (or any man or woman committed to an absolute religious ethic) decides to enter practical politics in order to translate his principles into actuality, he may achieve a relative success: he may be able to raise the level of political life in his time, as John Bright did, or maintain a comparatively happy and just and peaceful society, as the Quaker legislators of Pennsylvania did. But he can apparently do it only at a price—the price of compromise, of partial betrayal of his ideals. If, on the other hand, he decides to preserve his ideals intact, to maintain his religious testimonies unsullied and pure, he may be able to do that, but again at a price—the price of isolation, of withdrawal from the mainstream of life in his time, of renouncing the opportunity directly and immediately to influence history.
Let me call the two positions the relativist and the absolutist. And let me suggest that perhaps each one needs the other. The relativist needs the absolutist to keep alive and clear the vision of the City of God while he struggles in some measure to realize it in the City of Earth. And conversely, the absolutist needs the relativist, lest the vision remain the possession of a few only, untranslated into any degree of reality for the world as a whole.
Frederick B. Tolles
No one dreamed in the sharp crisis of 1917, when the first steps of faith were taken, that we should feed more than a million German children, drive dray loads of cod-liver oil into Russia, plough the fields of the peasants and fight typhus in Poland, rebuild the houses and replant the wastes in Serbia, administer a longtime service of love in Austria, become foster parents to tens of thousands of children in the coal fields in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, inaugurate plans for the rehabilitation (sic) of the stranded soft coal miners, carry relief to the children on both sides of the warring forces in Spain and create new types of peace activity which have brought this supreme issue of these times vitally home to the minds and consciences of people in all parts of America.
We verily went out in those days of low visibility not knowing whither we were going; but, like the early patriarch, we were conscious of a divine leading, and we were aware, even if only dimly, that we were “fellow-laborers with God” in the rugged furrows of the somewhat brambly fields of the world.
Rufus M. Jones
If we must speak of our Testimony of peace to the rest of the world, to speak of an absolute denial of war, let us do it in a voice of love, with a sacred sense of the personal sacrifices such a testimony may well demand, not in defiance of our political adversaries with whom we may find ourselves perpetually annoyed. Let us speak not without first recognizing the fears and the courage of those countrymen whom we ask to cease engaging in what they perceive as a defense of life and freedom, so they may join us in paying the price for peace required of those who will not live by the sword but who must be prepared to die by it.
Quaker peace witness is the magnet which drew many into the Religious Society of Friends. But a magnet can also repel, and some people find that it is an obstacle, which prevents them identifying themselves as Quakers.
When I listen to their difficulties, I find that these are usually practical or intellectual. But our witness against the use of violence is born not in the head but in the heart and spirit, as the Advices and Queries tell us. True Quaker peace work does not arise from a fear of war and violence but from compassion and a sense of what is right. These feelings, of course, are not confined to Quakers.
Perhaps it is this integrity, the concept of the wholeness of creation, that will jolt humanity onto a course of sustainability, which people may see as threatening at first. Of course change is often uncomfortable, but change is a must. We need to nurture ourselves and each other, but ultimately we need to nurture the earth—our mother.
Sustainability becomes not just one more matter we’re concerned about, not simply a new ‘testimony,’ but the framework in which Friends today must contemplate, even rethink, every aspect of our faith and practice. … If peace was the dominant theme of Quaker testimony in the 20th century … work for a sustainable human society on earth will focus much of our imagination and energies in this century.
As Friends, we seem to have a heightened aversion to, or fear of, the shadow side—those parts that we’d rather not see. We like to focus on the light as if there is no shadow, and I understand. This is not an unnatural desire. There is a belief operating there that says that if those things in the shadow were allowed to be seen, talked about, and acknowledged that we would surely die. I like to say that we want to be the underground railroad Quakers, but not acknowledge that we were also the Quakers who required African Americans to sit on separate benches during meeting for worship. So we have this fear that we would die if the whole truth were brought to light. There is some truth here. If we truly acknowledge those parts that we deny—that may be our shame, our sorrow, our greatest fears—there will be death. And primarily I focus on the death of the illusion!
The important thing about worldly possessions, in fact, is whether or not we are tied to them. Some, by an undue love of the things of this world, have so dulled their hearing that a divine call to a different way of life would pass unheard. Others are unduly self-conscious about things which are of no eternal significance, and because they worry too much about them, fail to give of their best. The essence of worldliness is to judge of things by an outward and temporary, and not an inward and eternal standard, to care more about appearances than about reality, to let the senses prevail over the reason and the affections.
London Yearly Meeting
But at the first convincement, when Friends could not put off their hats to people nor say ‘you’ to a [single person], but ‘thee’ and ‘thou;’ and could not bow nor use the world’s salutations, nor fashions, nor customs many Friends, being tradesmen of several sorts lost their custom at the first; for the people would not trade with them nor trust them, and for a time Friends that were tradesmen could hardly get enough money to buy bread. But afterwards people came to see Friends’ honesty and truthfulness and ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ at a word in their dealing, and their lives and conversations did preach and reach to the witness of God in all people, and they knew and saw that, for conscience sake towards God, they would not cozen and cheat them, and at last that they might send any child and be as well used as themselves, at any of their shops.
Friends recognize that much of the misunderstanding, fear, and hatred in the world stems from the common tendency to see national, religious, and racial groups as blocks, forgetting the varied and precious individuals who compose them. Differences between individuals, and between groups, are to be prized as part of the variety of divine creation. Every person should be free to cultivate his individual characteristics and his sense of belonging to a racial or cultural group as long as by so doing he does no violence to any one in the human family. Only when differences are the basis for feelings of superiority do they become barriers of hate and fear.
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
The duty of the Society of Friends is to be the voice of the oppressed but [also] to be conscious that we ourselves are part of that oppression. Uncomfortable we stand with one foot in the kingdom of this world and with the other in the Eternal Kingdom. Seldom can we keep the inward and outward working of love in balance, let alone the consciousness of living both in time and in eternity, in timelessness. Let us not be beguiled into thinking that political action is all that is asked of us, nor that our personal relationship with God excuses us from actively confronting the evil in this world. The political and social struggles must be waged, but a person is more and needs more than politics, else we are in danger of gaining the whole world but losing our souls.
Eva I. Pinthus
We are much concerned about the whole content of human relationship, about the meaning of “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” in the full range and depth of its implications. Loving does not merely mean doing good works; it goes further than feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. It means warmth and intimacy, open-heartedness and overwhelming generosity of hand and spirit. It means a desire to know and a courageous willingness to be known. Loving implies commitment to the other person, involvement in that person’s life, whatever it may cost in suffering, whether that suffering comes through being repudiated or through identification and sharing.
The life of society desperately needs this warmth of giving and receiving. Everywhere we see sociability without commitment or intimacy, and especially in our towns, intense isolation and loneliness. We see human energy that should be creative and loving deflected into activities that are coldly power-seeking; we see love inhibited, frustrated, or denied, turning into its opposite—into ruthlessness and aggression.
Quaker Home Service, London Yearly Meeting
The roots of war can be taken away from all our lives, as they were long ago in Francis of Assisi and John Woolman. Day by day let us seek out and remove every seed of hatred and greed, of resentment and of grudging, in our own selves and in the social structure about us. Christ’s way of freedom replaces slavish obedience by fellowship. Instead of an external compulsion He gives an inward authority. Instead of self-seeking, we must put sacrifice; instead of domination, co-operation. Fear and suspicion must give place to trust and the spirit of understanding. Thus shall we more and more become friends to all … and our lives will be filled with the joy which true friendship never fails to bring. Surely this is the way in which Christ calls us to overcome the barriers of race and class and thus to make of all humanity a society of friends.
All Friends Conference, London, Devonshire House
Whichever sphere of activity we are involved in, we have to be responsive to the Spirit’s leadings and try to put into practice our deepest beliefs, for our faith is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week faith, which is not excluded from our workplace, wherever that may be. Everything in the end can be distilled to relationships—our relationships with each other and the earth. Our work must benefit our relationships rather than damage them, and we must ensure that neither the earth nor other people are exploited. Caring, not exploitation, is the key.
Where people love money and their hearts are ensnared with imaginary greatness, the disease frequently spreads from one to another, and children indulged in those wants which proceed from the this spirit, have often wants of the same kind in a much larger degree when they grow up to be men and women, and their parents are often entangled in contriving means to supply them with estates to live answerable to those expensive customs, which very early in life have taken hold of their minds.
In contriving to raise estates on these motives, how often are the minds of parents bewildered, perplexed, and drawn into ways and means to get money, which increase the difficulties of poor people who maintain their families by the labor of their hands?
A man may intend to lay up wealth for his children, but may not intend to oppress; yet in this fixed intention to increase his estate, the working of his designs may cause the bread of the needy to fail and at the same time their hardships remain unnoticed by him.
We feel that we should at this time declare once again our unwavering opposition to capital punishment. The sanctity of human life is one of the fundamentals of a Christian society and can in no circumstances be set aside. Our concern, therefore, is for all victims of violence, not only the murderer but also those who suffer by his act.
The sanctioning by the State of the taking of human life has a debasing effect on the community, and tends to produce the very brutality which it seeks to prevent. We realise that many are sincerely afraid of the consequences if the death penalty is abolished, but we are convinced that their fears are unjustified.
London Yearly Meeting
Justice is more often used to justify violence than to oppose or reject it. It is certainly a part of Quaker conscience to be alert of instances of injustice and to correct them, where it is possible to do so without force or violence. Nonetheless, the concept of justice is treacherous for Friends. George Fox and the early Quakers taught us to rely on experience, and we have no experience of justice—only of injustices. The problem with injustices is that they lead to misery and oppression, and I find it more use to focus on the misery and oppression, as Jesus does in Matthew 25, and to try to relieve those conditions without mentioning justice.
Specific acts of prayer are only means to an end. The end is a more continual state of prayerfulness or openness that goes on through the day and through the night. … Back of all that I do, there may come a sense of something undergirding it and something that, when there are intervals in my outer work, flows up to the surface again. …
This prayerfulness can only be compared to the sense of glow that one has when in love. Obviously work has to be done which requires full attention, but when this is broken off, the wonder and security and surge of gladness return, and never really leave as the background of all that one is about. This is what is meant by those who talk of praying continually. It means an openness to people, a willingness really to listen, really to enter into what they are trying to say, an openness to the new and fresh and original in all that is about me, and, deepest of all, it means an openness to the inward whispering. …
We are called to obedient love even though we may not be feeling very loving. Often it is through the performance of loving acts that loving feelings can be built up in us. We may start with small, perhaps very tiny steps. It is only as we begin to allow Christ’s love to act in and through us that it can become a part of us.
For some time I took no notice of any religion, but minded recreation, as it is called; and went after it into many excesses and vanities—as foolish mirth, carding, dancing, and singing. I frequented music assemblies, and made vain visits where there were jovial feastings. But in the midst of all this my heart was often sad and pained beyond expression. I was not hurried into those follies by being captivated by them, but from not having found in religion what I had sought and longed after. I would often say within myself, what are they all to me? I could easily leave all this; for it hath not my heart, it is not my delight, it hath not power over me. I had rather serve the Lord, if I could indeed feel and know that which would be acceptable to Him.
O Lord, suffer me no more to fall in with any false way, but show me the Truth.
Mary Proude Springett Penington
A Quaker family, whatever its configuration, is rooted in the wider community of Friends. Grounded in love, it seeks to nurture every member through full acceptance, respect for each other’s choices, and common experiences characterized by caring, compassion, open and supportive communication, understanding, and a sense of humor. Friends seek to strengthen and learn from the children’s sense of wholeness. We believe that through the family we learn that the source of human love is God’s love for us.
Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association
Take the decision to have children joyfully, even though it is a hard one to take consciously, for many adaptations will be necessary for both partners. Consider carefully what each parent’s responsibilities will be and how you will share the various tasks of childcare and domestic life. Freedom to step aside from the career path for a while may be valued by either partner, or the traditional roles may be cherished, or both parents may agree to share work in the home and outside it equally.
Elizabeth Seale Carnall
God’s love is ministered to most people through the love of our fellow human beings. Sometimes that love is expressed physically or sexually. For me and my lover, John, God’s love is given through our homosexual relationship. In common with other people who do not have children to raise, we are free from those demands to nurture other vital things. This includes our meeting and the wider Society of Friends.
We both draw on our love a great deal to give us the strength and courage to do the things to which God calls us. … Our spiritual journey is a shared one. Sometimes the pitcher needs to be taken back to the fountain. In order to grow, I need my church to bless and uphold not just me as an individual, but also our relationship.
We are faced at every hand with enticements to risk money in anticipation of disproportionate gain through gambling. Some governments employ gambling as a means of raising revenue, even presenting it as a civic virtue. The Religious Society of Friends continues to bear testimony against betting, gambling, lotteries, speculation, or any other endeavor to receive material gain without equivalent exchange, believing that we owe an honest return for what we receive.
Faith and Practice, Baltimore Yearly Meeting
Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continually return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us.
Sometimes people understand “God’s will” or “God’s plan” as something imposed on us by God, something we must discover and decipher. I understand it differently. I feel that God’s path for our lives is constantly being developed. It rises within us and is something we develop in partnership with God as we learn to see and understand more clearly. With this seeing and understanding, we find the courage to step into the future.
Peace of mind is infinitely desirable, but it is achieved only through discipline and deep desire. Peace of mind is not inertia, it is not closing oneself from contact with reality which is often desperately grim; there is nothing negative about it. It is a process and a growth. It is achieved, I believe, by exposure, through prayer and meditation, to the serenity and peace, the greatness and the majesty, the loving-kindness and gentleness of God.
Rachel R. Cadbury
Now is where we live, now is where the past must be overcome, now is where we meet others, now is where we must find the presence of God.
The practice of journal keeping is … a way of becoming aware of the patterns of our inner life, of growing in self-knowledge and discovering our own gifts and possibilities. … Keeping a journal is just one way … of beginning to re-create your life. At its most basic it is a decision that your life has value and meaning and deserves the effort of recollection and reflection. It is also a decision that what you are living and learning is worth recording. That decision has its roots in a very deep layer of gospel truth.
To most of us are given some common little jobs every day of our lives. To a very few comes the call to do something extraordinary, some great task. The world abounds in men and women who find happiness and opportunities for self-expression in being faithful in the humble stations of life which are theirs at a given time. If we are loyal to the truth as we see it, and respond with our might in the “common” situations in day-to-day living as we face them, the glow of the grace of God deepens and nurtures our faculties for insight and for recognition of the true worth of things and of men.
Oh God, our Father, spirit of the universe, I am old in years and in the sight of others, but I do not feel old within myself. I have hopes and purposes, things I wish to do before I die. A surging of life within me cries, “Not yet! Not yet!” more strongly than it did ten years ago, perhaps because the nearer approach of death arouses the defensive strength of the instinct to cling to life.
Help me to loosen, fiber by fiber, the instinctive strings that bind me to the life I know. Infuse me with Thy spirit so that it is Thee I turn to, not the old ropes of habit and thought. Make me poised and free, ready when the intimation comes to go forward eagerly and joyfully, into the new phase of life that we call death.
Help me to bring my work each day to an orderly state so that it will not be a burden to those who must fold it up and put it away when I am gone. Keep me ever aware and ever prepared for the summons.
If pain comes before the end help me not to fear it or struggle against it but to welcome it as a hastening of the process by which the strings that bind me to life are untied. Give me joy in awaiting the great change that comes after this life of many changes; let my self be merged in Thy Self as a candle’s wavering light is caught up into the sun.
Elizabeth Gray Vining
My sunrise meditation means more to me now than ever. At dawn it is easier to feel the universe is one organic whole, held together by that Radiating Power of Love which flows through everything—including thee and me. …
By using the power of mature, redemptive love we can show each individual that we need his or her uniqueness to make us whole. We will then see that we have something to give others and that others have something to give us.
Rachel Davis DuBois
For me the certain realisation of God came at the time of the breakdown of my marriage. The unthinkable had happened and I seemed to be at my lowest state physically and mentally. There seemed to be no present and no future but only a nightmare of dark uncertainty. One distinct message reached me: to “go under” was out of the question, I could only start again, learn from my mistakes and take this second chance at life that I had been given. I found a strength within I did not know I had and I believe now that it came from the prayers and loving support of so many people round me.
This rebirth was for me a peak experience, the memory of which is a constant reassurance in times of emptiness and doubt. Facing the future, even with a sure faith, is not easy. I am cautious at every step forward, taking time and believing I shall be told where to go and what to do. Waiting patiently and creatively is at times unbearably difficult, but I know it must be so.
As I grow older, I seem to need more time for inner stillness. … This can happen in the midst of daily chores or when walking in a crowd or riding in a train. It means being still, open, reflective, holding within myself the crucible of joy and pain of all the world, and lifting it up to God. Praise comes into it, and thankfulness for all the love I have known and shared, the realization of how much of the time I am carried, supported, upheld by others and the love of God. [During this process] comes the deep sense of the unity of all being, the intermeshing of the animate and inanimate, the secular and the sacred, the tangible and the intangible. … It means just waiting, or just lifting the heart.
Prayer for the Aged: Consider thy old friends, O God, whose years are increasing. Provide for them homes of dignity and freedom. Give them, in case of need, understanding helpers and the willingness to accept help. Deepen their joy in the beauty of thy world and their love for their neighbors, grant them courage in the face of pain or weakness, and always a sure knowledge of thy presence.
Elizabeth Gray Vining
It happened in the night. I was at a very low point. I was sleeping out of doors on the porch close to the hill. A light breeze rustled through the overhanging branches of a great walnut tree. I was very tired. I looked up at the stars edging over the hill in my mood of great despondency. I said to God, “It’s no use. I’ve tried all I can. I can’t do anything more.” All of a sudden I seemed to be swept bodily out of my bed, carried above the trees and held poised in mid-air, surrounded by light—a light so bright that I could hardly look at it. Even when I closed my eyes I could feel it. A fragrance as of innumerable orange blossoms inundated my senses. And there was an echo of far-off music. All was ecstasy. I have no idea whether it lasted a minute or several hours. But for the rest of the night I lay in a state of peace and indescribable joy. How impossible it is to explain such a phenomenon in everyday language, but whatever it was changed my life. It was not a passing illusion. I never was the same again. For days I was terribly happy. The whole world seemed to be illumined, the flower colors were brighter, bird songs gayer, and people were kind, friendly and loving. This exaggerated brilliance faded somewhat with time and the intense sense of communion fluctuated. Later on there were, of course, low moments amidst the high peaks, and there were failures, dry seasons, and the recurring need for patience and perseverance. But I never lost the clarification of mind and spirit that was revealed to me on that night.
I have been learning … that when we accept our finiteness realistically and without bitterness, each day is a gift to be cherished and savored. Each day becomes a miracle. I am learning to offer to God my days and my nights, my joy, my work, my pain, and my grief. I am striving to keep my house in order, and my relationships intact. I am learning to use the time I have more wisely. … And I am learning to forget at times my puritan conscience which prods me to work without ceasing, and instead, to take time for joy.
People so often talk of someone “getting over” a death. How could you ever fully get over a deep loss? Life has been changed profoundly and irrevocably. You don’t get over sorrow; you work your way right to the centre of it.
[Grieving] is a discipline that is good for us and good for the world. As we grieve, we become more able to forgive—both ourselves and others—we can more easily let go of the hurts of the past and put our attention to the possibilities that are before us. As we grieve we loosen up a hard, tight place to the point that it can dissolve and be gone. If our hurts remain a hard, tight mass, they get in our way. They call out for attention. We stumble over them and have to maneuver our way around them. With attention on the need to grieve and the experience of how this process can free our hearts and minds from attachment to the past, new doors open up and more becomes possible.
The secret of finding joy after sorrow, or through sorrow, lies, I think, in the way we meet sorrow itself. We cannot fight against it and overcome it, though often we try and may seem at first successful. We try to be stoical, to suppress our memories … to kill [the pain] with strenuous activity so that we may be too tired to think. But that is just the time when it returns to us in overwhelming power. Or we try to escape from it. … But when the trip is over, the book closed … the research accomplished, there is our sorrow waiting for us, disguised, perhaps, but determined. …
What we must do, …with God’s help, is to accept sorrow as a friend, if possible. If not, as a companion with whom we will live for an indeterminate period, for whom we have to make room as one makes room for a guest in one’s house, a companion of whom we shall always be aware, from whom we can learn and whose strength will become our strength. Together we can create beauty from ashes and find ourselves in the process.
Elizabeth Gray Vining