Be still, and know that I am God
Part Four in a series about The Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.
In my early twenties, my longing to understand the truth about life impelled me to seek. I attended a university where I was taught by published writers, had read many books and traveled widely, but I could not find this truth. Knowing nowhere else to turn, I finally looked within, spending time writing in my journal, sitting with my fears of death, and walking at night under the stars. I wouldn’t have said that I was praying, but with my whole heart I was reaching for God.
Many of those who became the first Quakers were seekers for decades before they came to the point of turning their attention inward. For a while, these seekers had found community in the various churches of their day, and they had engaged seriously in the practices of each denomination they joined. For some, disillusionment came suddenly; for others it developed slowly, but all arrived at a painful recognition that they had not yet found God. England’s new Puritan government had failed to create the just and godly form of government for which many had hoped. Shameful political wrangling and intrigue continued as before, and a general malaise spread across the country. In 1650 in London, Isaac Penington wrote, “If ever there was a time for tears without, and a grief of spirit within, this seems the season…when after such an expectation of Light and Glory, of settlement and establishment in the things of God, such thick darkness, such universal shame, such dreadful shatterings, have so apparently overtaken us, and are so likely daily more and more to overtake us…” (qtd. in Keiser & Moore, 7). God seemed very distant, and sensitive people felt burdened by a sense of sinfulness.
It was only after giving up hope of finding what they were seeking outwardly that many began to turn their attention inward in a new way. The young widow Lady Mary Springett (later Penington) had found no nearness to God in spite of years of zealous prayer and Puritan practices. After trying out all the various Nonconformist and Separatist churches, she finally stopped attending any services or following the practices they prescribed. She did not wanting to be drawn in by any more vain boasts or false promises. She prayed and waited for a true revelation from God. Some remarkable dreams revealed that her prayers would one day be answered.
In London, Martha Simmonds had some brief experiences of a spiritual light within her that made her feel she had been wasting her time attending various churches and meetings, pursuing men with scholarly knowledge. Instead she needed to wait quietly at home and attend to what was happening within: “…about the end of seven years hunting and finding no rest, the Lord opened a little glimmering of light to me…and then for about seven years more he kept me still from running about after men…” (qtd. in Moore, 37).
In spite of talking to the most noted priests and ministers and attending sermons and scriptural debates all over the country, nowhere did George Fox find anyone who could tell him about God or Christ from direct experience. Finally, he gave up hope of outward help. Then he became aware that he could be taught directly by Christ, inwardly. He found support for this in scripture: “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.” (1 John 2:27) The young man stopped roaming and went home to live with his family for a while. His parents were displeased, however, that he would not attend church with them. In his Journal, he wrote: “I would not go with them to hear the priest, for I would get into the orchards or the fields, with the Bible by myself. … I fasted much, and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me. … I kept myself much as a stranger, seeking heavenly wisdom and getting knowledge from the Lord, and was brought off from outward things to rely wholly on the Lord alone.” (Journal, 7-10)
After discovering Christ present as an inward Light and teacher, George Fox began to travel again, to share the good news he had discovered. A stocky young man of twenty-two, he wore a white hat and sturdy leather pants and jacket. In the little village of Skegy, the mature farmer’s wife, Elizabeth Hooton, welcomed him to attend the meetings in her house of a small splinter group of General Baptists. Fox told them that they, too, could be taught directly by the Spirit of Christ, present within as a Light, which they could find by looking into their own conscience. This was the same Light that Jesus had incarnated, the Light “that lighteth every man that comes into the world.” (John 1:9) Following Fox’s guidance, members of this group found the Light of Christ within themselves. They began to call themselves Children of the Light, the original name for Quakers. Soon Hooton joined Fox in traveling to share the message.
In his travels through England, Fox eventually found more individuals and nonconformist groups ready to receive his message. Some, like him, had already made the turn and discovered Christ within. In the region of Westmoreland, hundreds of Seekers were waiting for a divine revelation of the true way to worship God, ready for the instruction he brought. Long-time Seekers such as Francis Howgill and Isaac Penington later wrote that they had previously been aware of that inward presence and had sometimes even followed its guidance. But before hearing George Fox speak, they had not known what–or who–that inward guide was. It had seemed too humble a thing to be divine; they had been expecting something glorious and triumphant, not a still small voice or gentle nudge.
Those who became the first Quakers all learned at some point–prompted inwardly or through the guidance of another person–to turn within and discover the indwelling presence of God, of the Light, of Christ.
The first three elements of the Quaker spiritual journey have now been named in this and previous posts: Longing, Seeking, and Turning Within. Together they constitute the process of Awakening to the presence of God within, the prelude to a powerful journey of transformation. In my posts I have quoted early Friends’ descriptions of these elements. Now I invite readers of this blog to send me accounts of these three elements in your spiritual journey. Some have already done so. In a reply or comment below, you can write about your experience or let me know that you are willing to share something. The next post will describe how Friends today have been experiencing Awakening and will include some of the experiences shared by readers of this blog.
Awakening: What impelled you to search for God or for something more to life than what you had known? How did you seek spiritual understanding? What moved you to look within? Have you always been aware of the indwelling divine presence? Were there particular moments when you first became aware of that presence or of divine guidance? What helps you turn within over and over again? What makes it difficult to be still and look within?
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(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin
I think my first longing for God as an adult came with a desire for altered consciousness after quitting pot. I also tried atheism but was invited to Quaker meeting. Early on a desire for inner peace community and acceptance moved me. I believe the insomnia ive experience since 9/11. Has really been a blessing to my spiritual practices. Spiritual formations offered by the yearly meeting has really helped my practices in partiçulaly spending much time praying without ceasing. I guess laziness aand all the brokeness &pain In the world makes it harder sometimes
Thank you Marcelle for this wonderful series. Your post on turning inward really resonates for me lately. Historically I have been quite comfortable with seeking outward via books, groups of like minded people, travel, etc. Turning inward to hear that small still voice, not so much. However, I have just begun a daily meditation practice ( in its infancy at two months old!). This practice has required much of me ( discipline, patience, focus, structure). What I have noticed is a subtle yet palpable change in me. What sometimes presents as uncomfortable or unfamiliar is often what is needed at the time.
blessings, Linda Ruthen
Looking back, I believe I have always been longing for God but only became conscious of it as such after becoming Quaker. My anabaptist tradition did not prepare me so much for an internal life but for work in the world. It was perhaps my husband’s longing that led us to find Quakers. I sought to know the Inner Teacher after listening to homilies given by a Quaker pastor. That seeking led me to turn inward fairly quickly as it led to my having an experience of the Inner Teacher that prompted me to do Centering Prayer. At the beginning of this spiritual practice, I still had a long way to go toward perceiving the reality of God and making that central in my life, but it was the start of consciously discovering the path that is still unfolding for me.