For many summers I lived alone and spent my days reading about early Friends and their times. Summer by summer, I pieced together my own account of the beginning of the Quaker movement. I was fascinated by their collective experience and the powerful way so many of them went into the world proclaiming the radical message of the Light of Christ within, challenging oppression of all sorts. Their stories were dramatic, heart-wrenching, and inspiring. In recent years I’ve looked more closely at the nature of their spiritual experience, asking myself: What, exactly, was the transformation they underwent that enabled them to become such bold witnesses to the truth they discovered?
Through taking up companionship with early Friends, I’ve gained a clearer sense of their collective spiritual journey. In Christian history there have been other individuals and groups who underwent a similar transformation, but the way Quakers spoke about it has some distinctive qualities. Today there is some crucial learning to be gained from them–not only by contemporary Quakers but by Christians and spiritual seekers of all sorts. Understanding the transformation they experienced can help us to become more responsive instruments in God’s hands, more able agents for the service, witness, innovation, cultural change, reconciliation, and healing needed in our time.
The transformation early Friends experienced involved a process of rebirth: a diminishment of the self-centered will–a kind of death–and the awakening of a being given over entirely to doing the will of God. They called this the New Birth. In his Apology, Robert Barclay wrote: “For those who do not resist the light, but receive it, it becomes a holy, pure, and spiritual birth in them. It produces holiness, righteousness, purity, and all these other blessed fruits that are acceptable to God. Jesus Christ is formed in us by this holy birth, and by it he does his work in us.” Through this spiritual rebirth, early Friends became “partakers of the divine nature,” as promised in 2 Peter 1:4. It required giving everything to God; in return, one gradually became wholly united with the fountain of God’s love and transforming power.
I have identified ten essential elements in the early Quaker spiritual journey. These ten elements may unfold or become prominent in stages, but they are not, in themselves, stages of the spiritual journey. They are more like strands that weave through the whole process. In future blog posts, I expect to focus on each of these elements in turn. I would love to hear your thoughts about these aspects of the spiritual journey and to learn about your own experiences of the transforming work of Christ, the Light, within us.
The journey begins with Longing, a desire for greater intimacy with God. This longing is experienced in many different ways, often as a heartfelt yearning for connection with God, or the need to be obedient to the divine will. Sometimes it manifests as dissatisfaction with the religious beliefs or practices in which one has been raised, or in dissatisfaction with the ways of the world. More generally, one might simply feel a longing for the way of truth or love.
Longing eventually causes Seeking. Initially, most seeking is outward, and may involve attending lectures, reading spiritual books, discussing scripture or matters of religion, joining a new church or spiritual community, and taking up various practices. Seeking may lead to new understanding and to growth in faith, but innate spiritual longing cannot ultimately be fulfilled through outward means.
Turning Within is an essential element of the Quaker spiritual journey. At some point, the seeker discovers that God—Christ, the Light, the Holy Spirit–has been dwelling inside all along, inwardly present in a quiet and humble way that was often easy to dismiss or ignore.
At the beginning of Quakerism, one did not become a Quaker merely through seeking, or even through discovering the indwelling divine presence. Together, the next three elements of the journey were essential aspects of the process of convincement: Openings, The Refiner’s Fire, and Being Gathered into Community.
Openings include a wide range of divine revelations and direct guidance of the Spirit of Christ within. Openings can be dramatic, but are more often subtle impressions upon the inward, spiritual senses. By “minding the Light,” over time one becomes more sensitive to divine openings, and more responsive. For many early Friends, revelations came in the form of “openings in scripture,” fresh understanding of the meaning of particular Bible passages, with relevance to their lives. Spiritual guidance often came through an inward hearing of certain scriptural phrases or verses.
The Refiner’s Fire is a difficult and usually painful element of the spiritual journey. This biblical metaphor was used by many early Friends to describe the process by which the Light of Christ reveals and melts everything within that resists God and God’s ways. Gradually sin, temptation, and disbelief are cleansed away, as well as overriding cravings for comfort, pleasure, and social status.
Being Gathered into Community is the third essential element in the process of convincement as a Quaker. The community helps its members to stay faithful to God’s transforming work among them, help that is especially needed when one encounters inward and outward resistance. The “corruptions of the world” lose their controlling power and, with the assistance of the community, one becomes increasingly dedicated to God’s purposes. Gradually the faithful person discovers that he or she is bonded with the community in deep, spiritual ways, no longer a separate being but part of the body of Christ.
The divine presence within provides guidance about how to live in accordance with God’s will; this often involves doing things differently from the cultural norms. At first this guidance is primarily about specific aspects of personal and communal life. As God becomes more and more clearly the center of life, however, individuals and communities receive Leadings of the Spirit that are about doing God’s work in the world, in matters both small and large.
Responding to leadings brings us up against both inward and outward resistance. What God asks involves a sacrifice of time and energy on behalf of others, with diminished gratification of creaturely desires and personal preferences. Something inside us groans at the things to which the Spirit leads us. Giving witness and taking up counter-cultural ways of living also elicits resistance from others. Those who are faithful sometimes lose social status, or experience persecution. Obediently following the leadings of the Spirit therefore leads to the element of the spiritual journey that early Friends referred to as Living in the Cross, or the cross to our wills.
In the experience of early Friends, it was Christ within who carried out the leadings of God’s Spirit and enabled them to bear the sacrifices and suffering that often ensued. God’s power enabled them to be faithful, and they experienced God’s love flowing from within, moving them to risk difficulties for the sake of others. I have called this element of the spiritual journey Abiding in Divine Love and Power.
Early Quakers, like many other Christians before them, understood that the transformation to which they were called led to a state of spiritual maturity called Perfection. It was a state of being able to live perfectly in accordance with God’s will, without any resistance or sin. Friends recognized that people are given different “measures” of the light, and that there are degrees of perfection. As one is faithful to the measure one has received, more is given. Perfection is not a static state. One can fall out of that condition; once in it, one can continue to grow, endlessly.
Several subsequent blog posts describe more about each of these elements of the spiritual journey of early Friends and invite us to reflect on how we can assist each other to be faithful to the transformation and the leadings of the Spirit to which God calls us today.
(c) 2012 Marcelle Martin
To read an overview of how early Friends experienced the powerful transformation that resulted from faithfully following the Light of Christ through this spiritual journey, see my 2013 blog post entitled The New Birth.
My book about these ten elements, Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. To order multiple books for a study group, postage free, contact us.
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Marcelle Martin has been a core teacher in two offerings of the Nurturing Faithfulness program, a 9-month program held online and at Woolman Hill Retreat Center in Massachusetts. Nurturing Faithfulness is a faith and leadership program designed to help Friends meet God more deeply, hone methods of discernment, reach for fuller faithfulness, and ultimately bring these gifts and strengthened abilities back to home meetings, and beyond. Program participants become a community of practice to support each other in offering spiritual nurture and encouraging leadings, service, and faithful witness. The next offering will most likely start in late 2021 or early 2022.
Here is a video in which past participants talk about the program:
Eleanor Harris passed this ONI to me and I am very glad she did!! The present day Friends have a bit of trouble with giving up their will (hence, the popularity of co-creating with God?). But I am reminded of twentieth century friends — Thomas Kelly’s writings on holy obedience and Douglas Steere’s writing “are you faithful, did you yield?”. Please add me to your blog list. Thank you, Kathy
Hi Kathy. I’m so glad the post spoke to you. You need to add yourself to the blog list. You can do it by going to the blog. On the right hand side of the home page is a place to give your email address and sign up to “follow” the blog. Blessings!
As you discuss these elements, I do hope you’ll reference the reading you did – authors and titles – so that we might share in what you’ve learned. Thanks.
Thanks for your interest and suggestion, Dave. In this post I quoted Robert Barclay’s Apology, page 8 in Dean Freiday’s rendering into modern English.
Marcelle, this is wonderful, as always.
I wish to comment on the first few of these 10 essential elements, however. I believe that what you write is likely to be more appropriate conclusions regarding the spiritual journey of believers. For myself, the elements to not ring true. Why? Because I was raised agnostic by design, taught to sneer at religion. Therefore, the idea of Longing for greater intimacy with God makes no sense. My journey began with fear, feeling that someone/thing was chasing me. Much, much later, far on the other side, I came to understand that feeling as being chased by the Hound of Heaven.
I am sure that other people must have this kind of experience as well, even those who were raised with some sort of non-experiential religion. I’ve heard of the “double” search, of us seeking God while God seeks us, and that makes a lot of sense to me.
Yours in Faith, Paula
Thank you, Paula, for sharing your experience.
Thank YOU Marcelle for sharing your reflections!
I enjoyed reading this!
I am wondering if early Friends also wrote about the delight, refreshment or reprieves that can interspersed with the challenges, pain and strain associated with the Refiner’s Fire. At points along my way, I have been surprised by both but the former tends to be what I remember and helps me continue along the way. Is there a particular Friend or two who shared deeply and specifically about their experience of the Refiner’s fire?
Thanks for your comment, Rhonda. Openings, the Refiner’s Fire and Being Gathered into Community generally happened more or less simultaneously, thus joy and pain were mingled together. In future posts I’ll describe each element of the journey in more detail and include some quotes from early Friends about their experiences. Thanks for asking!
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This was my introduction to your post. I appreciate your deep research into Quaker roots. It’s valuable to compare the experiences of the early Quakers with ours.
I’ve been a member of unprogrammed Meetings since 1974. The open form of unprogrammed Meetings holds a potential to be an incubator for these deep experiences. However, I’ve not found this happening.The focus tends to be on changing destructive patterns “out there.” Social action takes precedence over inward transformation and commitment to be aligned with the Light.
You have identified the defining characteristics of early Friends. Inner transformation and spiritual growth became their primary sources of strength and life direction. How much time and focus is given in this direction in our current unprogrammed Meetings? Without this united focus, our efforts to establish spiritual community can’t succeed. Unity without this base is a tentative unity, one based on how well we can adjust our patterns and programs to allow for differences of opinion and focus within the group. Where is the power and leadership of the Light in this?
Perhaps we will experience our spiritual growth into awareness and love in ways different than did the early Friends. It is a different time, with new awareness of the complexity of our identities and our connections with the greater Life. Also, spiritual exploration and experimentation is not forbidden in our time. We are unlikely to face persecution because of our spiritual orientations–at least in the U.S. or in Europe. Near death experiences (NDE’s), past-life memories, evidence of parallel worlds, knowledge that time as we experience it in our deeper identities is not linear–all these new discoveries call for wider scope in our spiritual searching and life expressions. How often are these new discoveries mentioned in our Quaker Meetings? What is their relevance to our search to be God-focused and Light-infused?
Some truths remain unquestioned: the reality and power of the Light is one.
Years before I discovered the Friends, I knew the Light. I was born knowing I came from a realm I called Home: one of Light and Love. I claimed the power of the Light, including that which you identify as the refiner’s fire. I repeated this often, with yearning.
I stand in the Light
The Light that reveals
That burns out the dross
That cleanses and heals
In this, I identify with the early Friends–and with all individuals, of whatever belief system or cultural identity, who have discovered this way to Freedom.
Mimbres, New Mexico
Alicia, thank you so much for sharing your reflections and experience. My hope in writing what I have learned about the Quaker spiritual journey is to strengthen spiritual growth in Friends today and in our meetings. I am glad to hear that you knew the Light and experienced the Refiner’s Fire even before coming to Friends. These truths are the birthright of everybody.
Alicia, I just want to say that I really appreciate your reflection here and am especially drawn to your mantra about the Light. It summarizes well various aspects of meaning, which are often not included in Friends’ understanding of the Light. Did you write it? Is it a song? (I’d like to make it into one!)
My guess is that things many of us have come to know now (on an experiential level) were also experienced by early Friends, but perhaps were not recognized or named as such. At the same time, the sciences of psychology and physics (for starters) have completely altered our modern understanding of the forces at play in our inner and outer worlds. I venture to assume that many things that happened to the young children of early Quakers are things that might not fit our understanding today of what young children need in order to develop healthy egos. But if we take to heart the notion of “continuing revelation,” we can look back to what we may have forgotten from early Friends, while also incorporating what we’ve learned since that time.
Dear Marcelle, Thank you so much for this. What you write speaks to me clearly and chimes with my experience. For me, the vital introduction to going beyond (adding to) Longing, Seeking and Turning Within was finding the Experiment with Light practice. Alicia Adams is right in sayng how unprogrammed meetings have this potential, but often miss it because: “Without this united focus, our efforts to establish spiritual community can’t succeed.” The practice has helped me to learn that: “By “minding the Light,” over time one becomes more sensitive to divine openings, and more responsive.” but also to share this with a small group of Friends within my meeting, as a Light group, so that we are together finding a deep community, and support in encountering the challenging elements of a faithful life. And all this has happened without me having to decide whether I’m a theist or not! It simply no longer matters.
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Thank you, Marcelle, for this affirming work. You put words to and share history and experience about this longing which I and others i know recognize.
Thank you, Marcelle, for another enlightening blog post. The concept of “longing” rings deeply for me. I do long for the power to overcome the things that keep me from opening up fully to that longing within me. I think of it as the need for time and for clarity in the face of too many obstacles and distractions in this unsustainable lifestyle of mine. : ) And I know many of us are i similar boats these days, making it difficult for our meetings to become covered in the Spirit. Perhaps we spend too much time in endeavors unrelated to our meeting community, admittedly of necessity for so many of us. I’m grateful for the inreach opportunities that our meeting is conducting, as a result of the Quaker Quest introduction we had. We are taking time to undertake spiritual practice together.
I also received this blog from Eleanor Harris,since we are both in Milwaukee Meeting. It so clearly expresses elelments of the spiritual journey that have been a part of my experience. I will continue to reflect on it as I endeavor to deepen my journey.
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Thank you for the wonderful description of the rich and heartfelt sharing that occurred last weekend at W. Richmond Friends Meeting with visitors from Adelphi Friends Meeting. I, too, was moved by all of what I heard — a modern day story of Friends being faithful together to what they felt led in Spirit to do. With your loving and well-written summary of the developments that led up to the difficult decision of W. Richmond and the other meetings to leave Indiana Yearly Meeting and to start a new Association of Friends, you’ve provided a real service to the larger Quaker body as well.
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Just back from the 2013 Swarthmoor lecture given by Gerald Hewitson called Journey into Life; Inheriting the story of early Friends. This covers Gerald’s spiritual experiences which mirror the stages mentioned. It was an entrancing talk and I thoroughly recommend the book to the readers of this blog.
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I just listened to your recent video on Quaker Speak. I was so encouraged by your concerns about the challenges we humans face in the near future. I don’t find many people willing to face these difficult issues head on. I have written about what I see as some of these challenges on my blog http://www.tomsclimatechangeblog.com (not just about climate change) and would love your input if you’re so inclined. Tom Snell, Santa Cruz Friends Meeting.
Thank you, Tom, for your work and writing about this on your blog and the links you provide to articles.
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Thank you for this piece, Marcelle, and for your other posts too, some of which I have read.
I was brought up in a Quaker church (First Friends Church, Bellefontaine, OH). After many years of “questing” – which included majoring in Bible in college (Asbury University), seminary, pastoring, and along the way finding myself in many different “theological camps” – I have come back home to the Quakers, Thomas R. Kelly being very influential and instrumental in my “return.”
I sent you a friend request this morning on Facebook. I would love to establish and maintain regular contact with you.
Again, thank you so much for your writings, with which I am finding so much resonance within.
Greg, I’m so glad you have found a home again among Quakers, and I’m pleased that you’re finding resonance with what I’ve been writing.
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