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 is a core teacher in an upcoming 9-month program, to be 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. August 2019 – May 2020
Here is a video in which past participants talk about the program: