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.