Library: Steere’s “The open life”

A new entry into my little library: Douglas Steere’s 1937 William Penn Lecture.  I found the text some years ago on pamphlets.quaker.org, where you can find some other classic pamphlets from this series, and from other series.

This talk is vintage Steere:  drawing deeply on Quaker and other religious sources to challenge us to greater levels of authenticity in action and in prayer, discovered and worked out for ourselves, using the materials of our lives, and learning in the process to be confident that “there is that near you that would lead you.”

He does not scruple to ask Friends to consider if we have not become too careful, too even, too safe for our own (and the world’s) good:

If one stays within the bounds of a decent respectability in religion, we argue, one is at least preserved from a good deal of hypocrisy and many other of the dangers of zeal. It is true that not many of our members travel in the ministry any longer. Publishing truth is after all a pretension to certainty and a trespassing upon the personalities of others that is unbecoming to a generation that looks upon religion as a delicate matter of personal taste. On our lips there is the prayer: Oh God, teach us to do thy will — to a certain extent.

The spirit of caution:  that spirit, it seems to me, can be sanctified — by a willingness to wait, to test, to see if we can live what we have come to see as true.  On the other hand, it can be unsanctified, if it represents mere avoidance– avoidance of commitment, perhaps, or of appearing the fool, or nerves about the hard work of following through with the in-breaking of clarity.   I know this spirit of avoidance very well, in myself, from long acquaintance, and it does not bring life, it holds it at bay.

I like this pamphlet, because, though speaking plainly enough,  Steere does not dwell on rebuking the backward, the unwilling, or the too-comfortable:  such things are part of the spiritual life, and centuries of counsellors have advised us not to dwell on the unpleasant truths we have come to see about ourselves, but to get on with amendment, in simplicity of heart, with the tools of prayer, wisdom, and practice that are available:  Neither do I condemn thee.  Go and sin no more.  There are many ways in which this message comes to us, but there have been times when I have been refreshed by the way this pamphlet challenges me.

Steele reflects on characteristics of the “open life” that takes on the challenge of faithfulness in freedom, and it is noteworthy that they are all modes both of contemplation and of action. He reaches to the inspiriting example of early Friends, but brings his message home to the contemporary soul.

The conditions that I find in these men of the open life are a sense of vocation, a living in the decision, a yielding to the principle, a coming under holy obedience or into devotion, a life of practice in the presence of God. These are not really separable. They are all a part of a single response, a single condition. But we shall enter the temple by several gates.

Diagnosis

In an earlier post, I spoke about proclamation, encouraging you, if you find yourself acting in faithfulness on a climate change concern, to tell people, and seek to understand and connect your testimony with the Gospel underpinning it.

But it has to be said that the search for understanding, coming to know the root of faithfulness, is a spiritual apprenticeship in which one explores the interaction between word and deed.  In this search, personality and culture can distract, confuse, trick us into thinking we possess because we can possess.

One way I think about this apprenticeship is in terms of diagnosis.  This word in Greek is not a medical term (or not only that).  It implies discernment, a “knowing thoroughly,” the sort of understanding that is accessible through patient observation and reflection, and brings to bear lessons already learned.

We believe, as Friends, that God’s guidance and wisdom is available to us (in our measure!) and perceptible, just as the voice of a friend or the unfolding trends of history are perceptible and accessible to us.

Amos 2:7-8:  “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets… The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?

In these times of disruption and anxiety, I am very sure that the Lord is at work.  With what joy do I see or hear any hint of that work!  How can we keep from proclaiming the evidence, and all the meanings and hopes it answers to, in ministry that   “interprets the truth of God to us, not alone in terms of momentary experience, but in terms of the growing revelation of God through the ages. ” (Faith and Practice, New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1930, pg 7)

But the discipline of the prophet, or even the unprophetic, unheralded soul who in a moment of sweetness and clarity feels that they experience Truth in some measure, is to wait.  Nayler says, let your food be in the life of what you know, and in the power of obedience rejoice, and not in what you know, but cannot live, for the life is the bread for your souls. (Milk for Babes).

It is so hard to tell the difference between a revelation and a notion, or between the first harbinger of understanding, and the full growth of it!  Too often I have been tempted to seize on what I have thought or felt or realized in a flash of connection, and run with it to someone to let them know.  It’s a particular temptation because at least part of what I am is a teacher, whose delight comes in helping others to see and enjoy and do, to grow in some way — the delight of the gardener, all of whose work is rewarded by the living creature expressing something the gardener could never do himself, yet has helped to make the flowering possible.  The great temptation of that kind of personality is that of the Athenians that Paul encountered (as recounted in Acts) — who were eager to hear and see something new.

We are now, in our culture, so rooted in the language of psychology and social science, loath to speak of “divine guidance,” or a “being sent by the Lord.”  By contrast, we are more accustomed to sharing our story, telling our truth freely, as a healthy act, and a positive assertion of personality.

But Friends have traditionally held that there is another process going on, that is not ours, even if we can hardly find “modern” ways of describing it.  In that process, we have found wisdom in the search, in the waiting, in “feeding on Him in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving ” as the Book of Common Prayer says.   This work is diagnosis. Then we will be able to know if we have a word to say, and feel freed and empowered to say it.

George Fox, early on, saw the difference between one kind of experience and another:

I went up to Swarthmore again, whither came four or five of the priests. Coming to discourse, I asked them whether any one of them could say he had ever had the word of the Lord to go and speak to such or such a people. None of them durst say he had; but one of them burst out into a passion and said that he could speak his experiences as well as I. I told him experience was one thing; but to receive and go with a message, and to have a Word from the Lord, as the prophets and apostles had had and done, and as I had done to them, this was another thing. And therefore I put it to them again, “Can any of you say you have ever had a command or word from the Lord immediately at any time?” but none of them could say so.

So we must take the time that is necessary to be sure that the word we can offer has been seasoned in life;  no time is wasted in that work, however urgently you feel the needs of the time.

Yet if you have been led to an inward clarity, transformed in time into the witness of action, and then if the Light helps you see where this is rooted in gospel love, then you may well be under preparation to tell what has been done for you, to you, through you, and you will know whose you are, and whose the work is, and take your measure of joy in the telling, whether to one or to a hundred, as the way opens. Your testimony, so rooted in reality, will tell us something about the condition of the world in which your seeking and finding have taken place. Diagnosis.

I close with lines from Penn’s Rise and Progress:

Your country-folks, neighbours, and kindred, want to know the Lord and his truth, and to walk in it. Does nothing lie at your door upon their account! Search and see, and lose no time, I beseech you, for the Lord is at hand.