Erasmus’s birthday 2018: Ministry a window into the inner life of the community

10/24/2018 § 2 Comments

I always like to pause and celebrate the birth of Desiderius Erasmus, in Rotterdam, on October 27 (1466, or ’67, or ’69), and on this blog over the years I have used the occasion to explore topics of interest to Erasmus, to Quakers, and to me.  (Since I will be on the road on the day itself, I am posting a little early).

In the past few months, I have been slowly working my way through Erasmus’s last major work, Ecclesiastes, a treatise on the art of preaching.  I was interested by this work, not only because of its focus on what Quakers would call the vocal ministry, but also because it was Erasmus’ last major statement of his understanding of Christianity. and how its life can be encouraged in the members of the gathered community.

At one point, Erasmus writes, “Sermonis enim vsus est proferre verbis quod animo conceperis.” I render this as “For the purpose of speech is to present in words what you may have conceived in your heart.”  [Nerd note:  Sermo here is the word that Erasmus used instead of verbum in translating Gk. logos in the opening of John’s gospel.  Sermo is not an utterance, but a discourse, and thus further implies exchange– that is, conversation that extends over time.  Not coincidentally, it is also the source of our word “sermon.”]

The reason this comment struck me is that I have long been convinced that one of the key functions of ministry is to make visible some of the unseen spiritual life – in the individual, yes, but more important in the community.  After all, if an offering of ministry in words is drawn forth by the working of the Holy Spirit from someone, at a particular gathering, then the message is emerging from (and speaking to) the common life, as part of the working of the Spirit for the building up of the community.

So then it is useful sometimes to stop and consider what the ministry in the meeting is telling us.  If there is no ministry for long periods of time, that may mean that individuals do not have an active spiritual practice — or it may mean, upon investigation, that the meeting’s members are finding the nourishment they want from what happens in the silence.  Yet if there is no sharing, no declaration of discovery, or lamentation, or prayer, or words of encouragement in worship, where do these things become fully part of community life?

Erasmus wrote in the Enchiridion (Handbook of the Christian Soldier) that “things visible ought to serve to lead us to things invisible,”  as an important strategy in filling one’s life with the presence and power of the Spirit of Christ. This is in line with his “anagogic” interpretations of bible passages, meditating on them in the Spirit that gave them forth (another note sounded in Ecclesiastes) until one could see the event being described concretely and vividly — and then see beyond that to the spiritual meaning that might be sought and found within it.

This, it seems to me, is a good strategy for the person seeking to live with reverent attention to life as well as the Scriptures  — and doubly necessary for a reverent engagement with what is brought forward in worship.

I have known some Meetings on Ministry and Counsel (Ministry and Worship, or whatever name your meeting has for the group that oversees the spiritual condition of the community) that had the custom of reflecting on recent messages offered in their meetings, to consider what might be arising.  This is a valuable practice — not judging,but trying to hear what the said and unsaid are conveying, what picture they give of the meeting’s health.

A question that I have not heard asked in such conversations — but if you have, I’d love to hear the story!  — is what evidence of discovery, of transformation, of visitation, is discernible in the messages given. Concerned reflections, personal explorations, moments of insight about a problem or question, counsel  — these are very often heard.  Messages that bring report or gratitude or surprise at power sought and given, help asked for and received — less so.

Coming away from meetings sometimes, I remember a passage from Geoffrey Nuttall’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#101)  To the refreshing of the Children of Light:

 Early Friends rejoiced to be publishers of truth: to be great in declaration. The overflowing heart and mind, overflowing in part into words, are so evidently a mark of primitive Christianity that it would be strange if they did not reappear in any endeavour after ‘primitive Christianity revived.’ The overflow in large measure comes about because something has happened.  We cannot but  speak the things which we have seen and heard. Whenever something has happened which affects men’s lives deeply, transforms their personalities, possesses their imagination, they will speak of it…. Language, like other divine gifts, can be abused; but its being one of the greatest of gifts, with its mystery of communicating the heart of man, led to the use of the Word of God as a natural image, alongside the image of the Spirit, for the divine self-giving. So Jesus used words as a prime mode of His ministry, and expected His disciples to do so, including those who might not join the little band.

Just so.  Of course the privilege of inward, wordless encounter with the Spirit is foundational for us — but we also have a continued need for a wide variety of vocal ministry, in many voices and speaking from all kinds of God’s children taking their outward share in the Spirit’s speaking, the continued, creating utterance of the Word.

This variety should include a gospel ministry that seeks not only to give a report of inward events or openings, news of God’s work, but  to give an account of them — to connect the ministering Friend’s experience to the more universal search for, and work of, the Word that creates and lives, and speaks us into light and life.

If this is not one ingredient in the message coming through the meeting’s inner life — not every week, but a steady part of the visible (audible) fabric of that life — then it is time to seek, pray, and “desire earnestly” (as Paul says) that some of us find and feel our spiritual hunger, and call out to the Lord of prophets for a disturbance, a baptism, a wound or a healing.  We may be the famished prophet waiting for some word — or we may be the ravens sent croaking to bring a bit of bread to other famished prophets.


Be faithful to your calling! A letter from William Dewsbury

10/23/2018 § 3 Comments

Dear friends and brethren,
Called and chosen of God, to wait upon him in his light, everyone in particular feel the power and life of God, exercising you in his service, whatever he calls unto, when the Lord fills the hearts of any of you with his presence, and in his life moves thee, quench not the spirit, I am commanded to lay it upon thee, whosoever thou art, from the least to the highest growth.

All, dear friends, wait to be kept in the bond of the Spirit, obedient to its motions, to cease and stay when it moves not, as well as to begin any exercise when it moves: And dear and tender little babes, as well as strong men, retain the pure in every particular, and let not anything straiten you, when God moves:

And thou faithful babe, though thou stutter and stammer forth a few words in the dread of the Lord, they are accepted; and all that are strong serve the weak in strengthening them, and wait in wisdom, to give place to the motion of the Spirit in them, that it may have time to bring forth what God has given:

And dear brethren, feed the lambs, and loose the tongue of the dumb, that praises may arise in and amongst you all, to the glory of God, that in him you may be a wellspring of life one to another, in the power of the endless love of God, in which the Lord God keep you all.

From York Tower, the 10th day of the 12th month, 1660
W. D.

Love, judgment, and the inner critic #5: Love, judgment, and who judges

10/17/2018 § Leave a comment

This is the final installment of my reflections on Chris Wolff’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet on the Inner Critic vs the Inner Guide.  I want to return to the question of love and judgment. You may recall that this whole series was set off by my first reaction to one line in her pamphlet: “Love and judgment cannot coexist.” (pg 31).

Now I realized after some reflection that Wolff meant by “judgment” something like “a judgmental attitude.”  It is this, she is claiming, that is incompatible with love.  Despite some experiences I have had, in which someone was being quite judgmental even though their love was not in doubt, I think I get her point, and its importance to her narrative about how the Inner Critic, that part of our personality that can sully or sabotage our growing selves, can cut off our growth in love, and hinder the healing and nourishment that love can bring — including our healthy sense of being worth love ourselves.  This seems like a reasonable and realistic claim about the growth of the healthy personality.

Yet for me there remains something more to add, because although it is wise, it does not for me suffice as an account of the progress of the soul.  Wolff may well reply, “Well, it’s just a short pamphlet, and it’s not meant to be the whole story!”  Point taken.  But how then shall I fill in the rest of the story for myself?  One thing I know is that I will not find the story satisfactory if I cannot relate it to the Gospel story that Friends in the past — and sometimes now — have told with such power.

In the previous post in this series, I spoke of feeling my story not as the discovery of my “true self” or anything along those lines, but rather as a journey, or pilgrimage.  Now I can add that, rather than take the journey one step at a time, I think one takes the journey one change at a time:your pace is completed, the foot hits the road a little further along, when the inward work of Christ moves forward, inches forward, claims more inner landscape.  James Nayler put it powerfully, in his tract The  Lamb’s War:

his kingdom in this world…is in the hearts of such as have  believed in him, and owned his call out of the world, whose hearts he hath purified, and whose bodies he hath washed in obedience and made them fit for the Father to be worshipped in…. He leads them by the gently movings of his Spirit out of all their own ways and wills…and guides them into the will of the father, by which they become more clean and holy.

Deeply he lets them know his covenant, and how far they may go and be false, he gives them his laws and his statutes, contrary in all things to the god of this world, that they may be known to be his before all his enemies.  If they keep his counsel they are safe, but if they refuse he lets them know the correction of the Father, his presence is great joy to them of a willing mind, but with the froward he appears in frowardness; the kisses of his lips are life eternal, but who may abide his wrath? The secrets of the Father are with him, and he makes all his subjects wise. (Nayler, The Lamb’s War)

This is the path that Paul describes as having Christ formed in us;  though we can give hospitality to the divine Visitor, we cannot do the healing by our will until that divine will is ours in measure, and we have learned that all our faithfulness consists in dwelling in that measure of life.

Then, says Paul, we are given in-sight not otherwise available to us, except by that cosmic, intimate Spirit alone, and we can say “We have the mind of Christ.”  Is there any claim more astonishing, more humbling, more awakening than this?

Here, indeed, is the root of the Quaker analysis of judgment:  Judgment is God’s alone, and God has no more ceased from discerning and teaching than God has ceased from pouring out gifts on the Children of the Light (however denominated) for service in love, and for prophesy.  When we are standing in the l ight, and speak truth to the condition of ourselves or others, it is the Light of Christ that is judging.  Our challenge is to do the hard work of distinguishing our own opinions and responses from a message truly rooted in the divine wisdom, whose names include truth, light, justice, and love.

As Penington says, the power comes in a form we don’t expect, and contrary to our preferences for domination, control, and certainty — just as Christ came to Bethlehem as a helpless babe of wandering parents, and died a disgraceful death, and yet lives presently in that same inconvenient power.  So the work that goes forward involves both revealng our condition, and equipping us to join in the work of reconciling the world to the One.  The love that is administered to us timelessly is also ruthless in its justice:

 the Lamb comes not to destroy men’s lives nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands…, and they are taught with truth. And thus the Lamb in them, and they in him, go out in judgement and righteousness to make war with his enemies, conquering and to conquer. (Nayler The Lamb’s War)

When we come into the state Nayler describes, we enter a perilous time, because the growth of capacity that we feel, the taste of freedom and of unexpected power, can excite us to run beyond our measure, as we press forward for more and yet more.  Our work is to wait, and wait again, and the work we need to do to stay with what is given so far (and no more) is part of our “filling out Christ’s sufferings.”

take heed of a judgment after the flesh…but wait to feel that raised in thee, which judges righteous judgment in every particular; and wait the time of its judgment, and be still and silent, further than manifestly thou knowest that it, and not thou, judgeth. (Penington,  Letter to a Parent)

Friends have taught, as well, that this is no quietist path, but the prophet’s school and work:  for in the deeps of God’s compassion, as we taste it according to our stature, we see  not only the inward bonds we wear, and the path out of them, but also how others wear such bonds (and the old word for all the shapes and kinds of unfreedom was “sin”), and weave the chains and wounds right into our customs,  our society, and even our understanding of worship and of what to value and to long for.

In this great drama, the phenomenon of the Inner Critic may be one form that our chains can take, but the removal of that particular hindrance does not then reveal our True Selves, well-meaning and benign, but enables us to open the door a little wider to the Visitor whose ways and works are not ours; and we can understand more and more what that invitation may mean, as it grows towards truth.

the Lord is at hand, he is near you all, the kingdom of God is within you, the principle of God is within you, with which (if you mind it) he will break the yoke of the oppressor within you and without you by the sword of justice; that’s his kingdom upon earth; put it not afar off; let it arise in your hearts, set it up above the will of man, let it shine in your hearts, let it speak in your courts, that which is of God in you all, which judges justly and with equity. (Nayler What the possession of the living faith is.)

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

09/22/2018 § 7 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!

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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.

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