Love, judgment, and the inner critic #4: On spiritual crises of our age, or what we are hungering for

09/22/2018 § 4 Comments


I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  (Thoreau, Walden)

The value of an essay like Christine Wolff’s pamphlet The inner guide vs the inner critic is that, from the complexity of spiritual life and growth,  it takes a specific thread and  explores it in depth — both as part of the author’s life, and as a part of the human condition. It makes a strong claim that the Inner Critic, whose voice can prevent us from hearing the Light, is without a doubt a challenge in many souls’ experience.

As I read the pamphlet, I recalled a moment of realization in my own life a few years ago.  I was trying to make sense of a pattern I had come to see in my behavior — a deep reluctance to place demands on other people, especially those I am close to, even when I have a legitimate need, or (more disressing) have a clear leading to some service in the ministry.  I am haunted by examples of this kind of unfaithfulness.  It seems so trivial a thing — “O, I don’t want to be a bother, never mind” — to obstruct a motion of the Spirit, and I am ashamed when it happens.  But since shame,  or fear of others, are not typically a problem for me, I have tried to understand the configuration of the inhibition.

One day, when I was reflecting on this, I heard a voice from memory, and I recognized it:  it was my (maternal) grandmother’s voice, rebuking me.  My family lived with my mother’s parents all during my growing up, and with our parents (and grandfather) working, our grandmother took much care of myself and (when she arrived 5 years after me) my sister.

Living at some distance from other folks, and with my grandparents relatively recent newcomers to the island, we were pretty isolated. The whole family was attentive and caring — no question of that — but it was a small world, set amidst a great world of trees, marsh, and water.  I provide all these details only to help convey the importance of my grandmother as a formative presence.

She was endlessly attentive, and typically pretty indulgent of a child: Once we were walking in the woods,and were exploring a tumble-down shed which was all that remained of a logging camp. Poking around in the undergrowth, I found a horse’s skull, white and weathered.  This was tremendously exciting!  We went back home, and later my grandmother trudged out to the place with a wheelbarrow, fetching the treasure home for me — it hung around the barnyard for years.

But if limits were violated, or some heedless thing said or done before other adults, her correction was swift and withering — she had a gift for scorn which could cut deep, and it’s her voice that I hear, putting me in my place: “Shame on you!”   So that was one of her contributions to my personality, among others that I am happier to have.  Her voice is at least one of the voices that I could call an Inner Critic, though no doubt long years of dwelling in my unconscious have distorted or amplified my grandmother’s actual voice into something more mythic than accurate.  And I expect that the inner critic has more than one source.

But though there are many features in my personality that impair my faithfulness — whether from nature, or nurture, or culture (“the world, the flesh, and the devil”) — I do not iin the end experience my spiritual history or quest  in terms of flight from these things, or conquest over them.  Indeed, although the metaphor is powerful and often helpful, I don’t see my spiritual life as “development.”  It is, rather, a journey or in fact a pilgrimage, a flight toward, whose course is both through the landscape of time & world, and of my inward landscape, as well. The inward and the outward overlay each other, intermingle — as in many ways I am not separate from this world, but body, soul, mind, and all are one fabric.

Moreover, the pilgrim (peregrinus, the stranger) is not only a wanderer, but is headed towards something, and that (however often he is sidetracked) is the point by which he  (or she, of course) is oriented.  And here I must make a confession, which feels presumptuous, but is actually the case:  When I am most honest with myself about what I long for, it is to come to a stable dwelling, a stable being, in God, in the gospel life, that sweet and springing presence and power where I feel free, and able both to love, and see where I cannot yet love.

When I remember that this is what I hunger for, in that remembering the freedom is given to see how next to get more settled, more established, in that place so powerful and so fragile.   When I first read Nayler’s words

Art thou in the darkess?  Mind it not for if thou dost it will fill thee more; but stand still, and act not, until light arises out of darkness to lead thee

I knew that I was being given a key that opened wisdom.   (Once, at a workshop that Bill Taber and I were leading for Friends in the  ministry, someone asked Bill, “How do you deal with the demonic?”  Bill said, “Oh, I find it’s safest to look right past it.” )

Standing in that place, I no longer give power to my shadow side;  I can look even at it in love, and find the power to shake free from it a bit more, and take the healing that the change both requires and enables. Then “judgment” comes to mean “insight” and “mercy,” too.  So also I come to see that for all my effort and engagement and travail/travel, my needful efforts, I am not making myself, not finding myself, not freeing myself. I am being both sought and found. Just need to remember the one thing needful.

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.








“Our religion lies in receiving a gift”: post-yearly meeting reflection

08/22/2018 § 2 Comments

I came back from New England Yearly Meeting full of gratitude for the way that Friends turned ever and again to the sweetness of the LIght, to do painful, painstaking labor to build up the common life, and to take joy in the work before us.

But I also thought, and think:  How hard it is to keep from idolatry, from such a fixation upon our own purposes and works that we forget that all our creation is really sub-creation (as J.R.R. Tolkien put it).

Working in the consciousness of the source of the soul’s life, we participate in the healing of ourselves, our community, and the world: we feel and accept the covenant.

When we do not dwell in that awareness, then our sub-creation builds separate worlds, whose coherence we struggle to defend, and across the gaps we send missives, treaties, and contracts.  We miser-like guard the little tastes of the divine life like relics or left-overs that grow stale and unnourishing; or like the manna that was hoarded only to spoil, when we were called to look past the fear of soul-scarcity, and trust that God would supply bread for the day.

Two ways of living, two kinds of wisdom.  I find both in me;  I know which one I long to give my allegiance to, despite myself.

From Isaac Penington’s letter to his father (emphasis added):

If my father had that eye which can see the things of God, and did apply himself to look therewith, he might see that peace, that love, that unity, among this people, which other men do but talk of…

They have no war with any thing but unrighteousness; and with that they cannot have peace, no, not in their dearest relations. They love the souls of their enemies, and think no pains or hazard too great for the saving of them. Being persecuted, they bless; being reviled, they entreat, and pray for their persecutors. They are at unity with whatever is of God; but with the seed of the serpent, they cannot be at unity: they know the “generation of vipers” in this present age, and can witness against them under their several painted coverings,

And this peace, this love, this unity, they attain, not by their own strivings after it, but by receiving it from above. Indeed all our religion lies in receiving a gift: without which, we are nothing, and can do nothing; and in which, nothing is too hard for us.

Yea, being kept in that, up to God, we can do all things, we can believe all things, we can suffer all things. Never was there a generation brought forth weaker in themselves, more foolish, more ridiculous to the fleshly wisdom, more exposed to sufferings from the world and worldly professors; yet, being kept faithful to Him that hath called us, we sometimes feel strength and wisdom, even such as the most zealous in the worldly ways of religion have not an ear to hear the relation of.

Turn in, turn in! Where the poison is, there also is the antidote!

08/08/2018 § 1 Comment

If we are caught up in the webs of deceit, unfaithfulness, and shame at our shortcomings or misdeeds, we can feel discouraged.   Indeed, as paraphrased in the passage in Origen that I quoted in the previous post, Ezekiel quotes God as getting to the point sometimes of saying, OK, I just don’t know what to do with you, you’re going to have to live with the conditions you’ve created by your hard-heartedness and unwillingness to heed my warnings and my invitations. Unless — there is always unless, for “thou art a gracious Lord, whose property is always to have mercy” — we turn again and call on God though we cannot imagine what the next step will be.

A passage from James Nayler came to mind which talks about the process, and I quote  (Warning!  17th century prose! Read slowly, preferably aloud):

[I] could not inherit liberty to my soul any other way, but as it came to be purified in obedience through the Spirit… And this work was not wrought in me by the knowledge of Christ after the flesh [that is, learning about Christ’s life and story], but as I came to learn Him in Spirit, for spiritual wickedness had taken my soul captive, and by the Spirit it must be sanctified and set free…

Nor do I say, that all my sins, which formerly I had committed, of which I had been convinced by the light of the world, when I was in the world, before I believed it to be sufficient, that they were wholly taken away, as my sins of ignorance were; for this I found, that God in this was just and merciful —

Merciful, in that He did not lay them all at once before me, lest they should have pressed me down, that I could not have followed the light, nor gotten any strength; but must needs have perished under them, had He not spared.

And just I have found Him also; for as they were not committed all at once, against the light of His Spirit; so He has at one time or another visited for them, and laid them before me; yet not all at once, nor no way so heavy as those committed after I believed, and gave up myself to follow the light, and yet to an account He has brought me for them.

…And in diligent hearkening and obeying of the Spirit, have I found the right faithfulness towards God, though getting knowledge be highly esteemed with men, and I have found that, as I have the Spirit manifest in me to profit withal: So the time of my profiting are only in His hand, and my waitings upon Him when He moves not, is my reasonable service, and a profiting time to me as if He moved, though I see it not.

And this I found a great cross to my hasty will, which is indeed the true worship in Spirit, which, when I knew not this Spirit to hearken and bow to, and obey and observe in all things as His will leads, I worshipped I knew not what, and my fear towards God then was taught by the precepts of men, and I was not taught of the Lord, not being born of that Spirit:

And so all the children of the Lord are taught of the Lord, and as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.

(from What the possession of the living faith is, and the fruits thereof)

Sin-drome: the webs we weave, in which we are woven

07/25/2018 § Leave a comment

Origen,  meditating on the process of reconciliation and renewal (rebirth), reflects on a lament for Jerusalem in the book of Ezekiel;  it feels to me as poignant and relevant today as in Ezekiel’s time, or Origen’s:

How often indeed did God wish through the prophets to lead her back to a better life! But because she did not wish to hear the counsel of God nor wish to accept God’s commandments, God hesitates and says he does not know what to do: “How shall I restore your heart? says the Lord God.” (Ezek.16:30). What shall I do? How shall I restore you? You are bound by many chains of sins, your crimes prevent your life from being restored by my words. I often tried to restore you by speaking through my saints, and you did not listen. I don’t know any longer what to do, and thus I say to you, “How shall I restore your heart, seeing you are doing all these things?”*

*(source: Origen: Spirit and Fire. ed. Hans Urs von Balthasar. pg.165)

Love, judgment, and the inner critic #3:  On whether we have learned as much as we think we have since the 1600s (or before)

07/18/2018 § 2 Comments

I suppose it’s matter of personality: some people tend to think that older is better, others that newer is best. The latter tendency is highly favored by our economic system, and intertwined with capitalism’s need to continually recreate the consumer’s appetites (beautifully satirized by The Onion, for example here).  The value and the costs of this novelty-seeking have been the focus of much research by neurologists and psychologists, and much debated by philosophers and commentators (a good place to start exploring this rich mix is at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, here).  I hear this argument-from-novelty all the time from the marketers of education technology and ed policy.

Alas, too often it is in hindsight (the accumulation of evidence about consequences) that we take stock of the New Thing  and weigh the trade-offs (fossil fuels, high-stakes educational testing, recreational tobacco…make your own list).  By that time, we have often accommodated to the costs, as the New Thing becomes just part of The Way Things Are. Curiously, we say that “Change is hard,” and so it is;  but novelty, which is often in effect a significant change, is easy as pie.  As we welcome (buy, consume) the new,  it is remarkably easy to dismiss cautions, counter-indications, or calls for research.

But this isn’t just a capitalist thing. It’s also a modernist thing, and modern Quakerism of various kinds buys into it, too. For the last century or so, many who are partisans for “progressive revelation” have taken this to mean, in effect, that what We think Now is intrinsically better than what They thought Then.  (And it’s not just a liberal Quaker thing — I was once told by an evangelical Friend that the traditional Quaker worship is outmoded — a dispensation that was necessary for Fox’s time, but we have outgrown it. Meanwhile, there are nonEvangelical Friends who feel that “silent worship” is a boutique practice that can’t reach out “catholically,” to echo Lewis Benson.  Perhaps it is, as it is usually practiced, but perhaps there are other ways to think about it.)

Christine Wolff’s pamphlet on the Inner Critic, about which I have been reflecting, uses a species of this argument from newness or progress in setting the stage for her essay.  On page 2, she writes:

Quakerism began in the mid-1600s, well before the study of modern psychology in the late 1800s.  We now have the benefit of a large body of knowledge about how humans thing, feel, and behave that was not available in the seventeenth century..this emerging field can add a lot to our abilities as humans to fully embody our spirituality in the world of our daily lives. It is often in the domains of personality, emotions, and relationships that our spiritual journeys meet the most challenges.  Love would be easy if we did not also feel fear, anger, hatred, jealously, pride, etc.

Now,  these areas (anger, fear, hatred, jealousy, pride) have been major subjects of reflection, study, and practice in major religious and philosophical traditions over the past couple of millenia.  The Stoics paid a lot of attention to the varieties and sources of negative emotions as they related to appetite, desire, social relationships, mortality and more. The monastic tradition carried on this work of observation, diagnosis, and therapy, and moderns with the taste for it keep finding value in their insights (trace, for example,  the Internet life of accidie or acedia as a very modern pathology of our time.  You can start here. )

The Hebrew scriptures among other topics are quite aware of how parents shape their children’s personalities — their strengths and also their struggles (an apparently simple proverb like “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” have provoked much psychological insight over the centuries). Some Renaissance pedagogues (such as Erasmus) tempered their admonitions to parents and teachers with the fruits of some careful attention to human nature, and the long-term effects of different modes of parenting and teaching.

In the 17th century (to speak directly to Christine Wolff’s point), Friends were immersed in, and emerged from, a culture infused with teachings on many aspects of psychology and personality development. The Puritan divines, who took their teaching and pastoral roles very seriously, produced more than one massive guidebook to the human heart (Thomas Brooks and Richard Baxter come to mind).  Robert Burton, in that amazing, eloquent, unique monster The Anatomy of Melancholy, writes:

our own parents, by their offences, indiscretion, and intemperance, are our mortal enemies. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  They cause our grief many times, and put upon us hereditary diseases, inevitable infirmities: they torment us, and we are ready to injure our posterity: mox daturi progeniem vitiosiorum [soon to yield a more wicked progeny]… we are thus bad by nature, bad by kind, but far worse by art [purposeful activity], every man the greatest enemy unto himself… we arm ourselves to our own overthrows; and use reason, art, judgment, all that should help us, as so many instruments to undo us.

In such an age, Fox could write (epistle 10):


Whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you,then he gets advantage over you,  and then ye are gone….when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed, and fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, etc., then ye think ye shall never overcome….

More examples could be piled up to show that previous ages had their own psychologies — quite aside from the insight that comes from dwelling in Christ, who knows what is in the human heart.

Now, I am a 20th century person (with a soupçon of 21st century flavor), and I do not for a moment believe that what is old is best as such.  Moreover, even if there is great wisdom preserved in Sanskrit or Syriac, Arabic or Arapaho, it may be inaccessible to me without a skilled and insightful translator, and the same is true for wisdom from a distant time.

On the other hand, it never hurts to be wary about the fruits of modern culture — “try all things, hold fast to that which is good.”  Easier said than done!  One kind of assay to apply to a shiny new insight, however, in the attempt to distinguish the true gold from the false, is the test of time.  I remember a professor commenting on a fashionable new theory, “Das Neue ist nicht richtig, und das Richtige ist nicht neu.” [The new (in this work)  is not correct, and the correct is not new.]

But beyond the need to sift the temporarily exciting from the actually valuable innovation,  I do think that the privileging of the New makes us vulnerable, in ways which can be damaging for the spiritual life.

First, it is distracting, and presents us with the constant occasion to lose focus, to move quickly from one solution, language, practice, idea to another, before we have incorporated into our integrity lessons learned, practices adopted after careful search:  it can tend to scatter rather than gather our spiritual focus.  You  may argue that there are many paths to the top of the mountain, but if you try to follow many paths at once, you are likely to spend a lot of time in a zig-zag, rather than in the climb to the top.

Second, it disrupts community, the community that strengthens and encourages.   Each person must seek as they can, and (as I wrote in a previous post) our individual spiritual practices and understandings will necessarily be a fabric woven through our unique personalities and situations — yet “community”  at bottom connotes shared values, and the exchanges and processes that preserve and use the common resources.

Our spiritual community includes those who built the house we have come to inhabit, or (to switch images) those who wrote the first chapters of the story we have come to inhabit. If I accept that I cannot have all wisdom, then it is the part of wisdom to be in frank dialogue with those who share the same path, yet differ in accent, emphasis, and practice — because they, too have been discoverers.  As Penington writes,

the Lord hath appeared in others, as well as to me;  yea, there are others who are in the growth of his truth, and in the purity and dominion of his life, far beyond me.  Now for me to set up, or hold forth, a sense or judgment of anything in opposition to them, this is out of the sobriety which is of the truth.  Therefore, in such cases, I am to retire, and fear before the Lord, and wait upon him for a clear discerning and sense of his truth, in the unity and demonstration of his Spirit with others, who are of him, and see him.

Our own personal integrity is often bound up in the integrity of our community, and of the relationship between I and We.  This unity in diversity is a process, not an achievement, and challenges us to stay awake, and to stay teachable.   The appeal to the New-as-better can be (perhaps unconsciously) an excuse to avoid the ordering of the Holy Spirit, to keep us from lessons we need to learn in some paradox or unpleasant fact.

I close with Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous comment on this dialogue:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.

Every kind of thing will be well

07/04/2018 § 5 Comments

In meeting for worship the other day, I found myself wrestling with the condition of the world — not only the political developments that dominate our daily headlines, but also the relentless acceleration of climate change and its ill effects, and the insane sleigh-ride of militarism, materialism, and cynicism which most of the world is  currently on.  I was feeling the familiar dryness in the mouth that comes in the midst of the temptation to give up hope —or the fear that hope is no longer an option.

All at once I found myself remembering the famous line from Julian of Norwich:  “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” **   In my melancholy mood, I quickly dismissed this as arising from a simple reflex need for comfort, yet it kept returning with urgency, as though I were being shown a door I needed to unlock.

I am not the first one to challenge this statement on its face.  More than one person has seen it as troubling (see here, for example).  Julian herself was puzzled by it.  It seems important to point out that in her account these are Christ’s words, not her own, and they lead Julian into much hard thinking, meditation, and frank challenge back to the Lord:  How can this be, given the way the world is?   She does not find it easy to square this apparently optimistic claim with the evidence of brokenness which she could see all around here, in 14th century England, a land of war, plague, and hard living.

Just as these words of her testimony came to my mind  in the midst of a grieving meditation, they came as the word of the Lord i the 13th revelation, as she came to see that her longing for unity with him was hindered by “sin.”  She notes that in thinking of this word, it brought to mind

all which is not good…his tribulations, his death and all his pains, and the passions, spiritual and bodily of all creatures.  For we are all troubled.

— what we glibly label “the problem of evil.”  Typically for a post-Augustinian, she sees that the whole world was “bent” by Adam’s sin.  She says (I am paraphrasing),  Why didn’t you just prevent sin from getting started?  Then all would have been well. But now, just look at things! Look at me!

« Read the rest of this entry »

We were warned

06/25/2018 § 1 Comment

Don’t keep silent about climate change. While there are many important humanitarian and political issues to track, not to mention the many strands of change, creativity, controversy, and chicanery in the world of education, you can’t not pay attention to climate change, I don’t mean that it’s hard to ignore — alas, it’s all too tempting to think about something else. Even the most committed environmentalist is likely to have moments of grief and exhaustion.

No, what I mean is, it’s imperative that we track the main story about climate change — that it’s here, it’s now, and we are committed to increasing climate disruption. It’s measurably bad, and it’s going to get worse. That’s the story, and we each need to be saying something about it to someone at least weekly, if not daily. This is not just a story about climate. It’s also about social justice, peace and war, refugees, disease, and impoverishment.

It’s not like this is news, to anyone who has been paying attention.

It was 30 years ago this month that Dr. James Hanson asserted, in testimoney before Congress, that the “signal” of global warming was now discernible within the “noise” of natural variability. He was speaking out during a summer that brought unprecedented heat to most of the US. (That summer’s heat so unbearable, is now not in the top 20 hottest years in recorded history.) If you have not done so, I encourage you to read some of the coverage of Hanson’s testimony, and how it has held up in the years since.

The bottom line is that Hanson’s analysis and predictions for the next 30 years (that’s us!) were remarkably accurate (you can start here, where you’ll find a link to a short video story from Yale Climate Connection, and here in the NY Times). I remember very well how the “skeptics” who joined a massive disinformation campaign about climate change dismissed the warnings because they were just the products of models — but Hanson and his peers and colleagues built those models on facts, and the models in turn led to an avalanche of research in the years since. We can say with much confidence that this is how the world is working. The sea level is rising faster and faster; temperature and preciptiation extremes are coming faster and faster. We are likely now committed to the catastrophic melting of major ice sheets — and those are just a few of the developments now under way, with living things (including Homo sapiens) drawn in tow — coping, or not coping.

Joe Romm, of Climate Progress, summed up the meaning of the anniversary thus:

We are running out of time for America to join the world in adopting the ever-stronger climate policies needed to avoid ruining our livable climates for centuries.  If we fail to act, we can try to say to those suffering the consequences 30 years from now that it was politics that stopped us from doing the right thing. But we won’t be able to say weren’t warned.

Idol worship, or, one face of Moloch to whom we sacrifice our children

06/20/2018 § 1 Comment

from Thomas Merton:

We who are ruined by our own indigence to the point of thinking that we can possess something worship a false god, a god of possession, that is a god of destruction. God is the God of the living.

(in A book of hours, ed. Kathleen Deignan, pg. 199)


Love, judgment, and the “inner critic”, pt. 2b: Syncretism, dilution, and the drawbacks of cultural appropriation

06/09/2018 § 2 Comments

In previous posts in this series, I did some preliminary work by way of detours into the nature of heresy and the patch work out of which we make our spiritual stories. This patchwork, I think, is inevitable for the individual who comes into any spiritual tradition, Quaker or otherwise. What is not inevitable is that the tradition in which one arrives (let us call it the host tradition), in providing spiritual hospitality to the seeker from elsewhere (let us call it the source), must ipso facto incorporate the teachings, practices, or world view of the source.  If a primary value is universal acceptance, then of course the host community will hereafter also acknowledge the values of the sources from which its new adherents comes. I merely point out that this a choice (to the extent or in the ways that a cultural change is a choice).

For example, I was raised an Episcopalian, and went to Catholic schools, where I was influenced by a few of the many streams of Catholic spirituality.  I was led to Quakerism — “convinced of the Truth,” as we used to say.  Now, there are parts of me that continue to feel nourished by my Anglo-Catholic roots.  My periodic use of the daily office, my awareness of the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, my readings in monastic spiriruality and the Christian humanism of Erasmus — these are indelible parts of my practice and my inner life.  Should, therefore, my meeting or Yearly Meeting in accepting me also accept the Nicene Creed, the practice of the hours, or the use of outward sacraments?  It would never have occurred to me to ask.  They are part of my personal history, but they are not compatible with the Quaker charism.  I have to make my own peace with them.

Others have grappled more eloquently than I with the “hyphenated Quaker experience” — As one example,  I recommend Liz Oppenheim’s reflections,”Living with a hyphenated identity,”  from some years ago  (along with the links and discussions that appertain thereto).

On the other hand, suppose the host tradition — let’s say, just to pick something at random,  Quakerism — takes the path of (essentially) universal acceptance.   At that point, Quakerism becomes a syncretic religion, assembled from various elements chosen from the Spiritual Marketplace, and added to Quakerism by new people accepted into membership — when the individual assemblages of ideas and practices that I bring are explicitly accepted during my membership process, the meeting is thereby declaring that what I bring is now also part of the Quaker testimony, so that when we try to explain what Quakerism is, we must somehow reflect in our account these new elements.   Thus, Quakerism is redefined, at least locally, and often without recognizing that the redefinition has taken place.

At first blush, such a process might be celebrated as a process of enrichment:  Quakerism version 1 turns into Quakerism v2, now new and better because it has bells or outward sacraments or what-have-you.  But note that this  kind of change is not just a matter of simple addition, because elements drawn from various other traditions are themselves embedded deeply in some culture, and so they are clothed round with meanings and nuances that are implicitly adopted along with the idea or practice that has been explicitly imported.  These additional nuances and meanings have their own implications that may not be recognized at first, or ever. On the other hand, the adopted practice or idea as carried out in our imaginary Quakerism v2, separated from its original context, may be in fact an echo or shadow of the practice as experienced in its culture (or practice, or religion) of origin.

One of the best statements of this problem can be found in the writings of the “Diamond Approach,”  the body of spiritual teaching that Christine Wolff draws insights from in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet that I am reflecting on.  The Diamond Approach is a syncretistic body of teachings and practices, drawing from multiple traditions of East and West (enneagrams and Freud, for example).   Yet the teachers of the Diamond Approach explain that each tradition has its own “logos,” which I might paraphrase as “worldview or narrative” about human nature and related matters, and warn that in assembling things from disparate traditions, you may be getting more (or less) than you imagine:

when we engage any particular practice, we engage the entire logos of that teaching. Because so many teachings are readily available these days, many of us borrow practices from different traditions and do them on our own outside the context of that tradition. But practices contain and express the logos of their teaching, so when they are done outside of that context, they lack the holding, support, and guidance of the larger field of the teaching.

To avoid this kind of attenuation or dilution, one would naturally need to delve deeply enough in the source tradition to understand the practice from the inside out, so to speak.  Since one’s life is finite, there would appear to be the danger of a tradeoff between depth and breadth.

This is thus a special and interesting manifestation of the tension between individual and corporate life that has been present among Friends (and other religions, of course!) forever.   In this case, the individual seeker arrives at Quakerism equipped with miscellaneous tools, habits of mind, and assumptions.  These tend to form the frame within which we interpret Quakerism — in a sense, we are seeing what we need to see, or what we are inclined to see.  We are not likely to know right away what it feels like to those who have been at home there before us.

It can take a while to get around to asking what might be there when we are not looking — what tradition we have actually joined ourselves to.  Ideally, the meeting has resources to help address this question — most importantly, living voices (as well as books and tracts and curricula and committees and whatnot) who can help the newcomer with the narratives and practices that have formed  the community they have discovered in their spiritual search, and given it the qualities that make it feel like an answer to their longing, a home in which to dwell, learn, and grow.

In generations past, some Friends were alert to this process by which individuals bring from other traditions innovations that sit uneasily with Quakerism as it was before they had arrived.  During the great upheavals surrounding the ascendency of evangelicalism among Friends in the 19th century, conservatives like Sarah Grubb and Thomas Shillitoe warned that innovators like Joseph John Gurney were spreading a “linsey-woolsey garment” over the Society of Friends.  As Grubb writes (in 1841 pg 430 in her Selected Letters):

 Oh ! how tried my poor mind is, under a sense of a want amongst us of true discern ment ; and even in my very secluded allotment here, I think my inward eye sees a covering in our Society that is prohibited in the truth; a mixture as surely disapproved in the sight of the Great Head of the Church, as ever the forbidden linsey-woolsey garment was of old

(the reference is to Leviticus 19:19).   The usage has an even longer heritage, however.  Josiah Cole in his memorial to Richard Farnworth (Works, part 2, pg. 126) writes that in his last hours, Farnworth (who died in 1668)

spake very preciously unto Friends…testifying of the greatness of the love and power of God, of which he was made partaker, and which he then felt; and of the preciousness of the Truth, whichhe had with us born witness of; and exhorted them to faithfulness and steadfastness therein, and to singleness, that nothing might be suffered to creep in of another nature to intermix therewith, saying, No linsy-woolsy garment must be worn, etc. with much more to that effect.

Such Friends were on their guard, in their times, against any distraction or deviation from the fundamental Quaker task, which was to shape our lives — individually and corporately — in conformity with the experience that Christ is alive and at work for our guidance, comfort, and liberation;  that we are called bring the whole of our lives under the ordering of this Spirit.  As they lived in this calling, they were led to separate themselves from traditional Christian practices that they saw as human inventions that could be serviceable, but also could be distracting or misleading, and were further from the pure springs of life/living. The Quaker process then is one of radical reconstruction, in the light of this commitment.

God alone is sovereign Lord of conscience (to quote a phrase beloved of Presbyterians and Hicksites as well) .  Each of us, pilgrims, brings with us things of value, inevitably.  If the spiritual community, Quakerism version X, to which we come is alive, however, it will be both a refuge and a workshop of reconstruction — challenging, overturning, and transforming what we bring, under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ, by which we have been led, and is not changeable, though in every time and locale we may hear with different emphases, questions, and struggles.

In thinking of this work of reconstruction, which must be partly unconscious, and partly intentional,  I recur to the image of “homeostasis in the body of Christ.”  In the present case, the analogy is thus:  Throughout our lives, our bodies are constantly drawing matter in from our environment, incorporating it into new tissue, and recycling old material.  Few of the atoms that constituted us at birth, few of the cells, remain long in our bodies — yet (under good circumstances) we maintain physical integrity, and some continuity of personality and memory.  across the years.  This takes work!   Some of it goes on in ways we are not aware of; some of it must engage our emotions, will, and thought — and much of it can’t happen except in the context of a community, whose integrity is held in its individuals and its memory, and serves to meet the challenges now and to come.


An exhortation from Richard Farnworth

06/04/2018 § 1 Comment

In reading for this blog, I was led to Josiah Coale’s works, among which I found a tract which he wrote in memory of Richard Farnworth, one of the very first Friends (convinced by Fox in 1651 — though 3 years later than Elizabeth Hooten).
As became the custom, the dying Friend’s final words were recorded, and there is this fine and humbling passage:

Friends, God hath been mightily with me, and hath stood by me at this time, and his Power and presence hath accompanied me all along, though some think that I am under a Cloud for something; but God hath appeared for the owning of our Testimony, and hath broken in upon me as a flood, and I am filled with his Love, more than I am able to express, and God is really appeared for us.

If God himself had come down and spoken as a man, he could not have spoke more clearer to us than he hath done, by the many Testimonies from Heaven in his People concerning this thing. Therefore I beseech you Friends, here of this City of London, (whether I live or dye) be you faithful to your Testimony which God hath committed to you, and as it ariseth in your hearts, be faithful to the Lord therein.

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 75 other followers

  • Meta

  • Social

  • Brian Drayton

  • Archives